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When you think of breakneck innovation, utility companies are usually not the first things that come to mind.
But that is exactly what National Grid is doing with their investment arm National Grid Partners. On October 24th, National Grid Partners announced that they were investing in three companies involved in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) spaces.
These three companies are on top of 15 other tech companies they have already backed/partnered with, bringing their total investment up to $102 million (a small portion of the $250 million that they plan to spend).
Why Is A Utility Company Investing In Tech?
National Grid plc is one of the largest investor-owned energy companies in the world. Although they are based in the UK, they also serve the northeast US in Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island through their subsidiaries.
National Grid sees the future of utilities in tech. While they are not the only utility company that does, they are the first to open an office in the hub of tech innovation, Silicon Valley.
They are trying to ensure they are not "blindsided" as National Grid Partner's CTIO Lisa Lambert puts it. Advancements in tech have put entire industries in disarray overnight.
National Grid Partners is National Grid's way of staying ahead of the curve. Because in these situations, it is always better to be the disruptor rather than the disrupted.
Lisa mentions that this is uncomfortable territory for utility companies. They are more used to regulation than innovation. Using this separate branch, they are hoping to spur the entrepreneurial spirit that is necessary for innovation.
What Are They Investing In?
Everything technology. Specifically, National Grid Partners states "Smart Cities, Autonomous & Transportation, AI, Blockchain, Energy Storage & Big Data" as areas of focus.
Most recently, their investments are in three companies: CNIguard, SparkCognition, and Uniphore.
CNIguard and SparkCognition are focused on managing infrastructure, albeit in slightly different ways.
CNIguard uses a system of sensors embedded into the infrastructure to ensure utilities are delivered safely and efficiently. Theoretically, this will allow them to see small problems before they turn into big problems, resulting in cost savings for the company and the consumer.
SparkCognition uses AI to do the same thing. However, there is a possible added benefit to AI helping find solutions to increase efficiency, that a person would have never been able to find.
Uniphore is different in that it is on the customer side. They are developing "conversational AI" that will interact with the customer. The idea is that it would be able to provide solutions to problems that the customer is facing, faster.
It seems that National Grid Partners are casting a wide net. It's hard to pick out any specific company and say, "this is the one that will change our industry." Investing in all these different technologies increases the chance that one of them will be it.