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“In Oslo, there are 550,000 meter points”: Interview with greenbird’s CEO, Thorsten Heller

We recently had the chance to interview Thorsten Heller, the co-founder and CEO of greenbird Integration Technology.

greenbird is an Oslo-based startup providing open-source-based integration technology for smart metering and smart grid applications. The young company, which was founded in 2010, builds its products and services around the ‘revolution’ that is going on right now within utilities and energy companies, as many countries in the world have decided that smart metering has to be implemented.

With smart metering and the smart grid, utilities and energy companies will become digital. End users will get more and more advanced internet-based and mobile services on top of ‘standard utility’ or ‘standard energy’ services. greenbird has developed the integration technology so that energy companies can connect metering devices with the end users, and use metering data for building a smart grid. To find out more, just keeping reading this interview we just did with CEO Thorsten Heller!

greenbird Integration Technology AS provides open-source-based integration technology for smart metering and smart grid applications. What exactly does this mean?

With smart metering, energy companies and utilities will deploy a communication network that connects metering devices and the end customers premise with the grid companies applications. With rollout and operations of smart metering, utilities will face huge integration challenges.

During rollout, utilities have to handle the installation of the communication network and the mass replacement of existing metering devices with the new smart meters. As an example, in Oslo, 550,000 meters have to be replaced before 1 January 2017. Utilities need therefore effective work order handling, which requires automated process integrations between entrepreneurs and utilities. greenbird is providing an open-source-based integration middleware, with pre-configured process integration templates for the mass installation process.

During operations, metering devices will send hourly-based meter readings. In addition to this, the smart metering infrastructure is used to transfer events (such as a ‘power off message’) to the grid operator. greenbird provides the integration middleware, which handles both huge volumes of metering data, and fulfills the real-time requirements for event handling.

Utilities want to use information from the smart metering infrastructure (metering values and events) to generate smart grid benefits. That means metering values will be used to optimize the grid capacity, reduce peak loads, optimize re-investments and reduce downtime due to proactive and effective error handling. For that, metering data and events have to be distributed to various operation support systems and business support systems. greenbird is providing the integration middleware to distribute smart metering data.

With smart metering, one of the goals is to get the end customer more engaged and more ‘consumption aware’/’environment aware’. For that end, customers and their preferred applications and channels, i.e. mobile apps or Facebook apps etc., will need access to metering data. greenbird provides the integration middleware to handle end user interaction.

In short, greenbird provides an open-source-based integration middleware platform, where the most typical smart metering integration usage scenarios are pre-configured and pre-developed as ‘ready to use’ process integration templates. greenbird actually provides ‘system integration’, which typically is done by system integrators, as a product.

What is your professional background and what led you to the idea to start greenbird?

The founding members of greenbird were working together for several years in another consultancy. From 2007-2009, we had several system integration projects for various customer and smart metering projects. For each customer case, we’d start again from scratch to do ‘nearly the same’ system integrations. That’s where the idea was born to build a platform, a product or a process integration library which simplifies integration challenges and to provide best practice integration processes.

What makes greenbird’s integration middleware platform and the related services unique, or better than, the solutions of other software companies out there?

There are 2 types of competitors:

  1. Infrastructure suppliers such as Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, etc. are the first. These companies do provide integration platform technology, and normally system integrators, such as Accenture, would implement integration solutions on top of these infrastructure platforms. greenbird provides, in addition to the technical infrastructure, ready-to-use and pre-configured integration processes and data models for energy and smart metering, dashboards, which means that greenbird is providing a business infrastructure whereas Oracle, IIBM, Microsof, etc. are providing technical infrastructure.
  2. System integrators, the second competitor type, are typically hired to solve integration challenges. System integrators are mainly interested in hourly-based consulting fees and would start each time again and again to implement the same stuff. greenbird provides integration templates which reduces the needs and efforts for customizations.

How did you finance the startup-phase of greenbird and who invested?

The startup stage was financed by a private angel investor who invested for the first 3 months. greenbird was already generating positive results in the first month, as greenbird provides also expert consulting services within integration and smart metering. Additionally, greenbird Integration Technology AS is the holding company, in which there is greenbird consulting AS providing expert services and greenbird solution AS which is the product company.

What were the main stumbling blocks during the development of greenbird and within the first months after the launch?

The biggest challenges is/was not to been eaten up by your own success. In Norway, all utilities have to implement smart meters until 1 January 2017. In the UK, in 2020 80% of all meters should be smart meters. The market actually needs a product like the greenbird concept, with the needs the experience and resources that greenbird has. In this way, the biggest challenge for a startup is to say “No” to new projects and product ideas, to stay focused. We did manage this because we’re quite experienced.

Challenge no. 2 has been hiring people. We’ve been lucky, as we have some of the smartest java and integration guys in greenbird, and talent attracts talent. But we have to find additional 5-10 developers and consultants to fulfill our plans.

Challenge no. 3 is the window of opportunity. In 2017, all meters have to be in place. So, most utilities will start the implementation projects Q3/2013. We need to build up a resource pool to support the customers.

How many people are currently working for greenbird and how do you support the corporate culture?

We have 15 employees. We have every two weeks a whole evening together discussing new technologies, new product ideas, new features. Once a month we’re going for a “fredags-pils” meaning having some beer and pizza together. About four times a year, we take the whole company to a skiing trip or something similar.

What is your impression of greenbird′s market acceptance so far and where would you like to see the company in about 3 years?

In Norway, greenbird is a known player within the utility sector. As of today, greenbird already has 35% of all metering points in Norway on our customer lists, meaning four of the largest utilities in Norway are greenbird customers.

We haven’t got the same attention yet as a software company, meaning people who do not work withing energy/smart metering have not yet heard that much about us. That will change as we start marketing outside the energy sector to get more experienced developers.

Our target is Europe. For us, Norway is just a pilot or a proof of concept. In Oslo, there are 550,000 meter points. Berlin has 5 million, and London has 10 million. We see Norway as a proof of concept, or a sandbox for development, but we target Europe.

In 3 years we will be present in Denmark, Sweden, and Germany or Austria.

What’s your experience so far of Oslo as a location to start up a company?

There’s no doubt that greenbird would never be greenbird if we had not started in Oslo. Norway is a small country and everything happens and is decided in Oslo. In one single day I can visit 3-4 customers. Everybody knows each other. So, after we started greenbird, other customers did the sales for us, talked about us, recommended us. So we are known – we know many people, many people know us.

By the way: You can find out about other interesting startups from Norway in this list

Thomas Ohr
Thomas Ohr
Thomas Ohr is the "Editor in Chief" of EU-Startups.com and started the blog in October 2010. He is excited about Europe's future, passionate about new business ideas and lives in Barcelona (Spain).
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