WIND Ventures’ Brian Walsh: ‘Storage needs to cross Death Valley’

BY BEN COOK AND ROBERT MALTHOUSE

  • Wind Ventures is backing companies investing in storage
  • The US venture capital fund’s portfolio includes Omnidian and Yotta Energy
  • CEO says stakeholders’ need to scale poses challenge for companies

Brian Walsh has a dream.

In that dream, energy storage systems are an integral part of every new building, every renewable energy project, and every electric car charger.

As head of WIND Ventures, the San Francisco-based venture capital arm of energy investment company Copec, Walsh is working to help make this dream a reality.

WIND Ventures recent activity has included leading Texas-headquartered Yotta Energy’s $13 million series A funding round, the proceeds of which will be used to scale its modular energy storage and solar microgrid technology.

Meanwhile, back in September, it was announced that WIND Ventures was one of the investors in Seattle-based solar system performance plans and guarantees provider Omnidian’s $33 million Series B capital raise, the proceeds of which are earmarked for investment in the energy storage market.

Energy Storage Report asked Walsh about WIND Ventures’ strategy and what he sees as the biggest opportunities in the storage sector. He also discussed how clients are using storage to boost the value of solar projects, and the challenges posed by the ‘valley of death’, the critical initial phase of a startup when it operates using initial invested capital rather than revenues.

WIND Ventures stated goal is to “accelerate growth for global startups and provide them with ‘unfair’ access to Latin America and the US”, what does this means in practice?

Brian Walsh: We are the ‘open innovation’ platform for Copec, a downstream energy corporation in Latin America. Through this platform, we offer global startup founders – within the energy sector, but also in mobility and retail – growth acceleration and total addressable market (TAM) expansion via preferred access to the Latin American markets. 

We call this ‘unfair access to Latin America’ for short. We found this value proposition to be both compelling and distinctive for startup founders and we have proven it to be real since we started in 2019 with our current portfolio.

The platform includes two primary groups: WIND Ventures and the WIND Garage. I head up WIND Ventures which is the strategic venture capital arm and is located in San Francisco where the highest concentration of world class startups in our focus areas exists, but we also engage startups on a global level. 

The WIND Garage is a ‘company building group’ in Chile and Colombia that is dedicated to building new startups and partnering with existing ones. By working with the WIND teams, startup founders gain a key growth partner that can leverage the assets of Copec and are experts in succeeding in the Latin American region.

From an energy storage perspective, what do you currently see as the biggest opportunities in the market?

For me, the challenge is how to make energy storage ubiquitous so that energy is reliable – through building power back up – and utilities can further decarbonise (by balancing intermittent renewables via virtual power plants, for example). This is in everyone’s best interests.  

Today, energy storage tends to be complicated and is also an afterthought to solar or an independent thought. The opportunity is to make energy storage a normal part of every new building, every solar and renewable project, and every DC fast charger, for example.  

What are the characteristics you are looking for in an energy storage business when you are considering potential investments?

I am looking for opportunities to accelerate the timeline in realizing the vision above – energy storage as part of existing processes and thinking so that it is ubiquitous. Take Yotta Energy, for example. It serves the small to medium C&I [commercial and industrial] market where very few vendors play. To do this well, Yotta developed a novel energy storage architecture that integrates directly into solar thereby reducing the ‘soft costs’ significantly. What’s not commonly known is that in addition to making it easy to include storage, Yotta also makes the solar project more valuable, that is, it enhances output. This is well aligned with making energy storage ubiquitous, which includes making it easy to install, easy to attach to solar, and lower cost.

In the context of energy storage, do you favour particular types of technology?

We are not tied to specific technologies and therefore we are open to all of them. While we do diligence on technology to inform our opinion on viability and readiness, our primary filters are market-based. This means, we study how the innovation can accelerate market adoption and deliver a market impact. We believe energy storage entrepreneurs will continue segmenting the market and developing novel approaches best suited for specific, and still very large, market segments. Again, Yotta Energy is a great example of this type of thinking.

What can energy storage businesses do to make themselves more attractive to investors?

To me, the more entrepreneurs can convert their technology advantages into market impact potential, the better. Long-time cleantech investors, like myself – I have been investing for more than 20 years – know that novel technologies can create excitement, but it’s the implications of the novelty of the technology in the market that matters most for success. For instance, a better battery chemistry is really interesting, but also signals a need to understand the market in the sense of understanding why a better battery chemistry matters, who benefits exactly and why. I encourage energy startups to flex their marketing muscles and form a narrative that focuses on the potential market impact versus primarily the technology differentiation. This will attract a broader set of investors and catalyze more impactful investor discussions relative to commercializing the novel technology, versus just understanding the tech landscape.

What do you see as the biggest barriers to the wider adoption of energy storage?

Classically, the barriers to new energy technologies – beyond the technology itself – has been the stakeholders’ need to scale in order to cross the ‘valley of death’. Energy storage is no different. So, the quicker the project developers, project finance groups, mainstream customers – as opposed to early adopters – get awakened to the energy storage opportunity, the quicker the sector will scale. To this end, I think energy storage evolves quite quickly from a single, centralised approach (to the entire market) to market segment and even geographically tailored solutions that optimise the product-market fit given the market segment or geographic nuances. Again, Yotta Energy is a great example, but there are opportunities for more optimised solutions for residential sub-markets, such as projects that combine EV charging, solar and storage for emerging markets.

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