Denise Massey, director of the Energy Innovation Centre in Capenhurst
Alistair Houghton meets DENISE MASSEY, director of Cheshire’s Energy Innovation Centre
YOU don’t have to speak to Denise Massey for very long before you discover that she’s been bitten by the electrical bug.
Ms Massey, director of Cheshire’s Energy Innovation Centre (EIC) in 2008, is an evangelist for the innovators of the energy sector.
She enthuses about the firms that have won support from the EIC, which is charged with helping SMEs link up with energy companies to develop innovative technologies.
Last week, EIC announced it had secured £29.2m in funding from energy watchdog Ofgem’s Innovation Funding Incentive scheme and the £500m Low Carbon Networks Fund. It will now look to distribute that cash to companies around the UK who want to sell their new technologies to the energy sector.
Ms Massey is so passionate about the energy sector – she even jokes that she no longer gets invited to dinner parties because it’s all she talks about – that it is a surprise to learn she only started working in it in 2008.
But today her enthusiasm for energy shines through as she rattles at 100mph through everything the centre does with both small firms and the electricity companies, who she refers to with a smile as “the big boys” of the industry.
And she is clear about her mission – helping bring those big boys together with small firms who have the technology they need.
She said: “How big energy companies operate is so different from how an SME operates.
“If a small business tries to knock on the doors of a big energy company, it might have to knock on about 18,000 doors to find the right person. And small business owners haven’t got the time to do that.
“A lot of these technologies are in pre-revenue businesses. It’s very labour-intensive. They haven’t got the sales teams to go out and find people to buy these products.
“What this centre does is help them get access to the big boys.
We are the bridge between small firms and big business.”
The EIC was founded in 2008 with the support of EA Technology, in whose building it is based.
EA itself was founded in 1966 as the Electricity Council Research Centre. The company shrunk after privatisation, but began growing again after a restructure in 2004.
It has created technology from the halogen hob in the 1970s to the UltraTEV Detector, which detects faults in high-voltage systems and which won the company a Queens Award for Enterprise in 2007.
It took several years, however, for EA to bring that UltraTEV technology to market.
Ms Massey said: “It was from that experience that EA’s CEO Robert Davies thought ‘if we’re finding this so hard, what must it be like for other companies trying to go through that process?’ That’s where the idea for the EIC came from.”
Denise had joined Cheshire County Council after school and spent her career with the authority. But she’s keen to stress that she was always at the commercial cutting edge of the public sector.
“I was in social services at a time when it was changing massively,” she said. “It was when we were outsourcing services. We were pushing care out, but the market wasn’t there – so we were part of the development of that market.
“It was the beginning of the market in social care and healthcare, and I was at the front end of that change.”
By 2008 she wanted a change herself – and jumped at the chance to become the first director of the EIC.
She said: “I wanted freedom to operate, where I wasn’t bound by the necessary bureaucracy of a large organisation.
“I had a very clear vision of what I wanted the EIC to look like, and what we were trying to achieve.
“It had to be based around honesty, integrity and collaboration.
“We collaborate with everybody and compete with nobody. What hadn’t happened in the energy sector before was this level of organised collaboration.”
The centre was funded by the Northwest Development Agency and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
It also won backing from Northern Power Grid, Electricity North West, Scottish & Southern Energy, ScottishPower Energy Networks and UK Power Networks.
EIC’s close relationships with those companies means it is well-placed to advise small firms on what the industry is looking for. It can also help them find funding, either from the power giants or from grant funders.
“The beauty of it,” said Ms Massey, “is that the industry is advising the people developing the technology on what changes they should make to make it fit with the industry.
“Their customers are advising them on how the technology should be developed. It’s a virtuous circle.”
As utility firms have huge, tightly regulated networks to look after, they have precise technical requirements that can be difficult for small firms to understand. EIC aims to help bridge that knowledge gap – and aims to help small firms feel confident about dealing with some of the UK’s biggest companies.
“Our customers are the SMEs,” said Ms Massey. “We’re here to protect their interests.
“They’re cautious about protecting their intellectual property. They’re worried about working with big companies because they assume they’re going to be eaten up and spat out.
“The big boys have agreed with us on this idea. They recognise that they have a shared obligation to support these SMEs.
“The industry has been really good with things like up-front payments. If they say they like the technology, they’ll give the money upfront.”
The EIC can showcase technologies on its website, allowing energy firms to decide quickly if it’s something in which they want to invest.
Ms Massey said: “A definitive no is as good as a definitive yes. These guys just want to know where they stand.”
The EIC has some 100 companies on its books at any one time. Ms Massey says it has so far created 64 business opportunities, with six companies securing a total of £20m in funding.
It has worked with companies as far afield as New Zealand, Ireland, and Canada – but it also has its own small incubation units.
One of its tenants is Secure Electrans, which has developed two products Ms Massey is keen to promote.
Firstly, Greengage is a touchscreen smart-metering system that allows customers to monitor closely how much energy they use and even to pay their bills instantly.
Secure Electrans has spun out part of that technology – the card payment system – into a secured payment system, HomePay.
It says HomePay is the first secure chip and pin device for home use. Customers use a chip and pin device verified through their electricity meter.
Ms Massey said: “It’s gone from a two-man band four years ago to employing 35 people – and they hope to recruit a further 15 this year.
“They’re still pre-revenue, but they’ve won some big contracts and trials with some big corporates. It’s a real success story.”
Another success Ms Massey enthuses about is Live Alert.
It was developed by Cheshire tree surgeon David Lloyd Jones, who regularly cuts trees and vegetation for large power companies.
Tree surgeons, farmers and other outdoor workers face the risk that, if their metal vehicle touches a power line, it will become live. But they will not realise that unless they touch the ground when still in contact with the vehicle – at which point they will be electrocuted. Live Alert is a device that tells people if their vehicle is live, allowing them to move it safely away from danger.
Mr Lloyd Jones had been working on Live Alert for a decade before approaching EIC.
“Live Alert is being funded by all four networks,” said Ms Massey. “It’s really close to market, and it’s up for an award.
“He only needed about £60,000, but an individual tree surgeon couldn’t have got that.”
Irish firm FMC Tech, meanwhile, offers a “real-time line monitoring system” to help power firms find faults in their distribution systems more quickly.
It also, says Ms Massey, has some potentially exciting future uses.
“One of the big challenges the electricity networks face is about demand,” she said. “Demand is increasing, but the network is 80 years old and it’s creaking.
“The challenge is to get more out of the existing system. One Holy Grail is dynamic line rating, so they understand how much electricity they can push down the wires at any one time. FMC’s technology will help with that. It’s a building block for the future.”
The EIC employs just nine people.
“It’s a small team,” said Ms Massey, “but we punch above our weight with the leverage we offer and the networks we’ve got, from the Government to the Technology Strategy Board and the networks.
“We want SMEs to come to us. We want to get the technology out there.
“We’re making it happen. We’re not talking about it, we’re doing it.
Outside work Ms Massey enjoys walking, particularly in the Clwydian Range near her North Wales home where she lives with her family.
“I like walking on my own,” she said. “It gives me time to unwind, and to think.”
And it’s a fair bet that, even on the Welsh mountains, electricity is never too far from her mind.