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Podcast S15E08

In Conversation with… Sandra Trittin

In Conversation with… Sandra Trittin

In this episode, Jon talks to Sandra Trittin, who founded tiko in Switzerland. They explore Sandra’s journey since founding tiko in 2012 to now, when she is moving on. Jon talks to Sandra about her takeaways, her observations on the journey she’s been on and her view for the future.

Episode transcript

[00:00:04.690] - Jon

Welcome to Talking New Energy, a podcast from Delta-EE, the new energy experts. We'll be talking about how the energy transition is developing across Europe with guests who are working at the leading edge of this transition. Hello and welcome to the episode. In this podcast, one of the things I enjoy most is talking with people who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible. People at the leading edge of the energy transition, the innovators, the people really making new things happen, turning imagination ideas into reality. And today, I'm fortunate enough to be speaking with Sandra Trittin, who was founder of a company based in Switzerland called tiko. Exploring Sandra's journey since founding tiko in 2012 to today, when she is moving on from tiko, tiko is now part of ENGIE, a big energy company and very excited to be talking with Sandra about her takeaways, her observations on the journey she's been on and her view for the future. So Sandra, I gave you quite a build up. Hello, welcome to the podcast.

 

[00:01:20.640] - Sandra

Great to talk to you today.

 

[00:01:24.330] - Jon

Sandra. I remember the first time I came across tiko, and I don't know whether it was in 2012 or soon after, and I wrote a blog because I was so excited by what I saw. I thought, wow, this is the sort of thing I've been talking about, this is what I've been telling people. I think this is the way forward, this is part of the future. And I hadn't found a company doing it. And there was you and tiko. So for the benefit of our listeners that don't know, might not know who tiko is or what you've done at tiko, can you give a short introduction to what your idea when you started tiko? Maybe? Let's start there.

 

[00:02:09.330] - Sandra

So, when we started tiko, the idea was to build up a company who's creating virtual power plants, focusing on residential assets. Because back in that time, it was already well known that virtual power plants could work with industrial loads. And now the idea was to shift that more into a mass market application. The background of the three founders at that time, of Fred, Stefan and myself is also telecommunication. And IT and so we saw there is a need to transfer that knowledge into the energy industry, building up virtual power plants by using devices which are in residential homes. And at that point in time, it was mainly heat pumps, it was electrical direct heaters, it was water boilers, it was night storage heaters. And then over the years, this has grown, right, because the devices which are in the homes of people have also been growing in a way of solar, of home storage, of wall boxes. But it could have been also jacuzzis and up to sauna heaters that we have been connecting over the time.

 

[00:03:23.250] - Jon

And I don't know if it's right to say, Sandra, you were the first company to do this, but probably right to say you were one of the first. Maybe along with companies like Voltalis in France, there were some people with ideas, but there were a few people putting it into practice.

 

[00:03:37.770] - Sandra

Yes, I think the main differentiator of tiko at that point in time was the application of the virtual power plant. So it was already, let's say, to a certain extent well known that you could connect residential assets to control grid load. For example, in some countries this is easily done also by the network companies by using virtual control so they stop your washing machine or your heating system over lunchtime or in the early evenings when they expect peak loads. But to have a virtual power plant providing services like Fast Frequency Regulation, this was pretty new. And for this reason, I think this is the area where tiko was really pioneering to have a virtual power plant with residential assets being able to react within 1 second to any kind of needs of the grid, and then later on also providing different other services. But this was the main challenge.

 

[00:04:43.630] - Jon

Now we'll come back to many of the things you've talked about, Sandra, but you've been looking back over your time at tiko, and I know I've got five observations on your journey from idea through to scale up, becoming part of ENGIE and what tiko is today. So what are your five observations looking back?

 

[00:05:07.890] - Sandra

Yes. So the key observations that you could probably have read on LinkedIn one is that first of all, you need to have an idea. You need to have an idea, you need to think about the innovation, and then you really need to have the hard belief that this is going to work because there will be many tough times, many ups and downs. So this belief is really key then as a second part, once you have that belief. And now for the application of virtual power plants, there was the big question of the technical feasibility, because people in the industry were known to control big cement mills or to stop paper mills or something to reduce load, but then to control thousands of residential assets within 1 second for Fast Frequency Regulation was like, whoa, is this at all possible? Right. Would that work in terms of communication of traffic, of data, etc. Then the third part was mainly about once you know it works technically, you have to bring it out into the market. So you need to build up a brand, you need to be known with your partners, but also with your clients.

 

[00:06:23.630] - Sandra

You need to spread the word, you need to create a brand respective marketing around to be well known as a solution provider. Then the fourth one is the scale up, right? Once it works in a small context like it does it with tiko in the context of Switzerland, there was pretty quick the question about scaling it up, bringing it to other countries. And this always has an impact on your investors set up. So we were changing our investors from Swisscom and Swiss utility power to ENGIE, for example. And then the last one, and I think this is the most important, it's all about the team and the people. You spend so much time together, you spend days, nights, weekends, you sweat for any kind of problems, right? To solve it, you have to decide if you have to close the company or would like to keep it open. You want to celebrate. So this is really important that you have the right people and team around you, otherwise it will not work.

 

[00:07:34.690] - Jon

From that idea, from the three of you back in 2011, 2012, can you give our listeners as an idea for the scale that you reached now, whether that's in people or assets you're controlling or number of countries you're working in?

 

[00:07:50.230] - Sandra

So, as you mentioned already, at the beginning, we started out of Switzerland, where our main focus was for the beginning, and then pretty quick we realised that there is much more need around in Europe. So we have been expanding to Austria, to Germany, to Belgium, to France, also going a bit further to Australia, also Italy, so it's continuously growing. We are now a team of around 65 people. I think at the moment we have more than 30,000 assets connected that we are controlling, but distributed over different countries and for different kinds of services. So it could be that in one country we do fast frequency regulation, in another country it's energy services like balancing group optimization. So this always differs from partners and countries where we are in.

 

[00:08:46.040] - Jon

Yeah, okay, thanks, Sandra. So just looking at five points there. So the idea in the belief, the technical feasibility, the brand, the scale up, the team often I think people I speak to on this podcast will talk about team as a critical thing. And I think you said it's the most important thing. The idea, of course, I think quite common probably in companies like tiko to have that idea. But I like what you said about the unwavering belief. Through good times, hard times, difficult times, you maintain that belief, technical feasibility, for sure, we can maybe unpick that, but brand becoming famous, the one I think is one of the hardest to do in the energy transition is that scale up, that business model. I don't see any shortage of people with good ideas. I think there's a lot of clever people with the right technical skills, maybe not always in the right company, but the team for sure, but the scale up and maybe the bit about building a brand, let's start with scale up. So I remember when I first got to know you, and tiko in Switzerland, you did a lot of the value chain yourself.

 

[00:10:18.430] - Jon

So you found customers, you put in hardware in their homes, you optimised and aggregated, their devices and you sold that flexibility to Swiss grid, I think. So you did everything. Now from that beginning did you have a vision to scaling up or did you have lots of different routes or did you go down dead ends? I'm really curious to hear how much of a definitive plan it was and how messy and unstructured and opportunistic it was.

 

[00:10:54.070] - Sandra

Probably to tell you at the beginning we first had to build up that virtual power plant in Switzerland for that technical feasibility. So this was the reason why we did the value chain from one side to the other one fully ourselves because we had to prove it and we wanted to prove it quickly. And probably you also know that working always with utilities together can take just a bit of time. So it was good to have the first step being done by ourselves. Now what we have seen with the scale up is that then we thought okay, let's partner, right? And just pick parts out of the value chain where we would partner with manufacturers. With utilities. With third parties where we would say okay. We are providing our solution as a white label solution to these clients or partners who then can offer a solution to their clients as we did for example with Sonnen in Germany or with utilities in Switzerland. Also with Efo and Austria which works pretty well but it also takes time. So it takes time to set up. You normally do pilots and I will come back to that point in a second.

 

[00:12:13.810] - Sandra

So yeah, it's a matter of timing and as a startup you never have time, right? You need to scale, you need to grow and what we figured out in the meantime is that there is no one solution and especially for the part of virtual power plants. If you want to be present across different countries and across different kinds of services it's necessary to be really flexible with your business model and to say okay, in one country we might do the value chain from A to Z and another country we are just providing an algorithm. In the third partnership we might provide an algorithm and help with the customer acquisition. So it really depends but it has to be flexible. This can be different. If you have virtual power plant applications, for example within one country for one customer segment and you're focusing on that one right, then you just stick to that one business model.

 

[00:13:11.580] - Jon

Yeah, go on.

 

[00:13:19.230] - Sandra

Just quickly because of that pilot, right? I mean once you start on that topic of virtual power plants like us, it's always like oh but can we do a pilot? Right? And you have all your partners and every partner says like oh but with me the home storage in Germany works different than home storage in Switzerland and probably home storage in Belgium and home storage in Italy which is technically actually not the case. So we had to also take some hard decisions to turn down opportunities, but not to die because of proof of concept. Right? It's the death by proof of concept which can really kill a company if you don't have the outlook that you can say, okay, I have a hard timeline, I do a pilot, I do it for half a year, but if it's successful, then we grow the business together.

 

[00:14:12.910] - Jon

Yeah. It must have been very hard choices then about pilots, because you get a big energy company in a new market that wants to pilot. Were you just really disciplined about that time scale you just mentioned that sort of half year. Yes, we'll try it, but if it's going nowhere after X months, we're going to stop, or is it more judgement? Or do you look back and think, oh, we did too many pilots, or we could have done more?

 

[00:14:49.370] - Sandra

Once you look back, right, you're always more intelligent. And at that point in time, I think we did too many pilots for some time. But it's also difficult because once you have a partner on board and he tells you like, oh, I want to do a pilot, and you say, yes, but only under the condition that afterwards we continue to grow to thousands of assets, this can be also really difficult for the partner then to fulfil. So it's more a case by case judgement. Also, talking to some big utilities who are well known and probably Germany wide in the business is different than talking to a local utility in Switzerland in a small area where you just have, let's say, 50,000 inhabitants at all. So there you need to balance a bit, but you also need to take care of the resources that you have in your company. Right. Do you want to block the resources for the small project, for the small utility with 50,000 clients? Or do you want to grow it more and block them more for the big possible opportunity with a big German utility? Just to show you some balancing, which is not as easy.

 

[00:16:06.710] - Jon

That must have been constant throughout the ten years. That balancing, I guess.

 

[00:16:12.560] - Sandra

Yes. And at the beginning, right, you're just happy that you get on board new clients, new projects. So we were really opportunistic. But it's also more to at that point in time to prove that the technology really works. Because once you do the first virtual power plant, it's like, yeah, but one thing can always work, right. And it's just like, well, just proof first that it can be also applied to different environments, to different markets, to different assets. But once you have done that, right, then there is no reason why a wallbox, for example, in Belgium should react differently to wallbox in Austria.

 

[00:16:52.650] - Jon

Yeah. Do you think you had to do the whole value chain at the beginning? I know you say you had to prove it technically, but I can imagine that that gave you fantastic experience to then work with partners because you've done every single job that the partner might be doing.

 

[00:17:10.250] - Sandra

Yes, that's for sure because we have been going through every single step. As you were mentioning, we were doing the marketing ourselves, doing the customer acquisition, the customer support, organising the installations, doing the training for the installers to put at that point in time some hardware in because the heat pumps were not intelligent enough right then later on running the world to power plant ourselves. Luckily we had some help for the trading because we did not have our own trading desk but we also had to monitor the capacity which were available and the delivery of the virtual power plant to do the reporting et cetera. And I think our clients still value today this experience and also the experience that we had nowadays with many different other clients in different kind of countries and different kinds of settings because they can also see how different solutions, business models et cetera could look like. And I think this is really something unique that tiko is providing. At least I have not seen another virtual power plant provider offering this kind of knowledge as well as we are doing.

 

[00:18:29.670] - Jon

How have you seen your place in the value chain change? So going from that beginning to doing everything now the world the understanding of residential VPP's experience has developed in a big way since 2012. So if tiko is approaching a new client now, what's the obvious place in the value chain? Or do you still see a lot of different people doing different things in different ways in different parts of the value chain or do you see that VPP value chain now becoming more defined and different people focusing on different parts of that value chain?

 

[00:19:16.170] - Sandra

Difficult question because it depends which is not the best answer. But I think where tiko really has a core is especially in the algorithms, in the logic on how to steer the devices without disturbing the comfort of the end client, how to control the assets, how to control them fast enough, how to provide the capacity during the forecast etc. For this is a bit the operations also of the virtual power plant plus the algorithms and the logic on how to set it up. I think this is one key asset. Now to give you two examples, for example if we are talking to manufacturers or device suppliers like some of the new companies offering full energy solution equipment packages to their clients like the solar heat pump et cetera, they are doing already the customer acquisition so there is no need for tiko to step into that piece. But they are looking for someone to help them build up a virtual power plant and running it. Whereas in other countries where you don't have these players probably at hand, it might be more interesting than for example nowadays in France to approach clients with direct heating systems to do that once ourselves in the market.

 

[00:20:43.720] - Sandra

So we do it B2C directly, but we also go through our investor ENGIE and provide the solution there as a white label for them. So this is why there is still no exact answer. But I think the market is in general getting more fragmented and there are more companies focusing on different pieces of the value chain.

 

[00:21:09.390] - Jon

Where would you say the gap is if residential VPPs are really to scale to millions, tens of millions of devices across Europe? I was going to say what's the hardest part? But I think every part of the value chain is hard. What bit would worry you the most about? Will there be enough capability to do this part of the value chain?

 

[00:21:33.970] - Sandra

I think it's the creativity to build up the right business model.

 

[00:21:38.110] - Jon

Okay.

 

[00:21:39.430] - Sandra

But I have also to say there have been no better times than now for virtual power plant. It's almost like being back in 2011 when you look back at the energy prices, right? They are now as high as possible. And the higher the energy price, the higher the need for virtual power plants, which is perfect for us, right? So there is no better time to build up a business model, but a business model which works for everyone, right? Who works for the partner, which can be utility or manufacturer, which works for the end client, who owns the device, and which also works for tiko. There are many ways, it's just not the obvious way. Like you would sell a device or as you would sell a new energy contract. You need to be a bit more creative and it's possible, but you need to step out of your comfort zone and think a bit out of the box. And this is a bit where I'm mostly worried, because if the creativity is not there, this kills your business idea immediately, because then you will not get the budget to build up the virtual power plant.

 

[00:22:47.810] - Jon

And for your experience, Sandra, that vision to step outside the box, to step outside your comfort zone, is there enough of that? Is there enough confidence at senior management level, at board level, to invest the budgets in it? Just unpick a little bit more. Where do you think the most if you could unblock one bit, would it be the board approval for budgets? Would it be to get different skill sets working together? Would it be what would you think it would take to really help to get that create that business model right?

 

[00:23:28.730] - Sandra

I think on one part it's the budget and it's the belief and a bit of risk taking, because virtual power plants and residential space are still new. So you need to be a bit more open and you need to be a bit more risk-taking. And this is also why you see it more growing with new players in the energy market. The topic of virtual power plants, then with the incumbents, for example, they also have some, but not in that big scale or in that thinking and vision of going into millions of assets. So I think it's the risk taking. And if you are more willing to take the risk, then you also prove the budget, then the budget is just following the risk taking approach.

 

[00:24:22.130] - Jon

Yeah. And I guess coming back to what you were saying about pilots, there's a role for pilots in this, but it depends how you approach a pilot.

 

[00:24:32.870] - Sandra

Exactly. And I think pilots are also important, so I think they have their meaning in that full setup of a new partnership, because this also helps the two companies to get to know each other and how you work together and also how the people work together. But you can have a pilot for a specific timing and then you also need to be willing to say, and if the pilot is successful, what will happen afterwards? And you need to stick to it. And not just, we do a pilot and it runs for five years, and then we have a look and we see, and then we have half a year of decision making time. And this drives a small scale up crazy and kills it.

 

[00:25:14.550] - Jon

I can imagine. I can imagine the pilot should be there to test the business model that has been developed and there's a clear next step after it. But I guess you've seen all sorts of pilots, I imagine, in your time frame. Oh, we just want to play with it and understand it through. We've really got a business model we want to test.

 

[00:25:37.530] - Sandra

We have both. But today, our most successful partnerships are the ones where we said, okay, let's not test only for the technical feasibility, but mainly for the business model and how the client is perceiving the value. And then afterwards, really agreeing already on the next step, what happens after the pilot.

 

[00:25:59.810] - Jon

Yeah, I want to touch very briefly on brand, which was your fourth point of your five observations before we get out there talking new energy crystal ball. So, building the brand, did you have a very clear strategy to do that? How much was that you as a person, as an individual? Quite a lot, I imagine, in the early days. And how critical was that to the pilots of partnerships that enabled you to scale?

 

[00:26:32.550] - Sandra

Yeah. So probably as a short anecdote, tiko has been starting the business under the name of BSmart, which was mainly due to the fact that we were building up the first virtual power plant with former colleagues of Swisscom. So we could approach these clients, though, through the intranet of Swisscom. But then all of a sudden they were asking us, oh, but could we also bring our neighbours on board and could they also join this first pilot? Right? And all of a sudden it was like, oh, we need a website, we need a URL. We need a brand, we need to set something up. So I was sitting together with one of my colleagues at that time and we were just thinking, okay, we need a URL being set up by tomorrow. And we came up with the naming of BSmart first. We wanted to stick with that, but the problem is that you cannot have the branding and you cannot use it really as an official branding for long term because it's a general expression.

 

[00:27:38.490] - Jon

Being too generic.

 

[00:27:40.110] - Sandra

Yes, too generic. And so we had to think about a brand working together with a really great branding agency which was putting also a lot of effort into that brand. And the main point for us was that we wanted to stick out also a bit out of the crowd of general energy brands and also having our vision and our belief reflected in the name. And so if you look at tiko, the T and the I stands for time and the K and the O were originally a C and O for communication and community. But we could not keep it with the C because the name was already taken. So it's time and community and the idea was to shift energy in time with the community to provide energy and grid services. And I think this was really helpful also for growing the company that in that name, our belief and our vision is still reflected and by having the brand looking also a bit different than the normal white, green, light blue, grey, green being a bit more pink and purple and just sticking a bit out. This is quite useful over the last years and I think it will be also for the future.

 

[00:29:03.550] - Jon

Yeah, that really tied together that I guess that knits in with your first point around belief, the idea, the belief that was embedded in who you were, the feel of your communication, the look of your communication.

 

[00:29:18.790] - Sandra

Yes. And it took us months to develop that brand, so we really took the time to do that. There were many discussions going on, especially the more people you have at the table, the more opinions you have. But I think in the end it was really key to have something different but also incorporating this core belief of the company.

 

[00:29:47.950] - Jon

Well, we won't have time to explore how much you had to get out and about, but I did like the bit on your LinkedIn post, Sandra, about the number of kindles you've left on buses or trains or planes. A lot of travel and a lot of work.

 

[00:30:04.090] - Sandra

Yes, I have been enjoying the travelling a lot. Right. And I think we can be proud to say that everyone from China to Australia, Tasmania, even up to Hawaii on the other side of the globe, knows today about tiko, south Africa, Russia, Finland, you name it. Normally most of the people should have an idea, even Mexico, what tiko is about the travelling has been great. Meeting all these people, also understanding the different markets, the different market setups, market designs, opportunities on how to use tiko was just an amazing possibility. And opportunity for me to grow the company, but also to grow personally.

 

[00:30:52.630] - Jon

Yeah. Must look back and think what an amazing ten years.

 

[00:30:58.020] - Sandra

Yes. No, it was great.

 

[00:30:59.870] - Jon

Yeah. Looking forward. Now let's turn to the talking new energy crystal ball. And if I set the data to 2030, I'll leave it to you, Sandra, whether you make this specific to tiko or the VPP sector, residential VPP sector in general, but what's your hope for what the sector will look like by 2030? Described in any way or whatever metrics you want.

 

[00:31:27.170] - Sandra

Yeah. So actually, if you would have asked me ten years ago, probably I would have given you the same answer already for 2022.

 

[00:31:37.010] - Jon

Okay.

 

[00:31:37.800] - Sandra

But now my hopes are even higher that virtual power plants in the residential space are getting much more common. And that for all the new devices which are built into residential homes, it will become just common to be part of any kind of virtual power plant, either from the utility or from the network or from a third party provider. Because first of all, it's a huge capacity which we are building up there now, especially since they're changing in the energy sector since the beginning of the year. It's even fostering us more to go on electricity. The number of heat pumps is rising tremendously over the last month and it will the same also with solar. So I think we cannot even afford to not connect them. And we see that also in general with partners and other players in the market, but they are also realising that opportunity much more now. And by having the possibility now also to connect all these devices just cloud to cloud. So you just need software and not always hardware, only in some cases. It makes the cases much more easy to apply. You really have to do it right.

 

[00:33:02.810] - Sandra

There's no way around. No way around it. So I would be hoping in 2030 that at least with every second device, which is a new build in a residential home, it belongs to a virtual power plant, one or the other way.

 

[00:33:22.010] - Jon

I tend to be a glass half full person, so I share your view, Sandra. I think it's a fantastic way to solve the energy system challenges we have, but also for us as energy users, as energy consumers, energy producers, us as individuals, to be empowered, to have a role and to share some of the value of that flexibility that we can provide.

 

[00:33:52.310] - Sandra

Fully agree with you.

 

[00:33:54.290] - Jon

The business model remains a big, big challenge. But I know it's something that's still a very dynamic area, something we look a lot at Delta and lots of people with great energy and ideas, and.

 

[00:34:08.820] - Sandra

They are ways through it. Right? So it's not impossible.

 

[00:34:13.070] - Jon

Certainly not. And it's exciting as well.

 

[00:34:15.730] - Sandra

Exactly.

 

[00:34:16.530] - Jon

Yeah. Well, Sandra, thanks so much for sharing your time and thoughts. Now, I know we'll be talking again at the Delta-EE Summit in Edinburgh on the 12 October 2022, so if any listeners are joining the summit, they'll get a chance to hear more there or talk to you in person there.

 

[00:34:35.930] - Sandra

Very much looking forward to it and thank you so much for having me.

 

[00:34:40.310] - Jon

Thanks, Sandra. And thanks as always, to everyone listening. I hope you enjoyed today's podcast and maybe are energised to bring your creativity to residential virtual power plants. Who knows? Look forward to welcoming you back to the next episode next week. Thanks and goodbye.

 

If you're as passionate about the energy transition as we are, then please keep in touch. You can follow us and me on Twitter, LinkedIn or subscribe to the podcasts on your chosen podcast platform. If you like the podcast and like sharing, then please do rate us. And to listen to archived episodes, to read transcripts and to see the latest Delta-EE insights, then please visit www.delta-ee.com.

 

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