“Transport will go electric and autonomous over the next 10 years”: Interview with Irish energytech serial entrepreneur Norman Crowley

Energy comes in many forms. Humans have learned to harness the power of fire, water, air and exploit resources in the ground. In a modern world, energy technology allows us to power everything from our houses, to transport, to our phones. It connects us and allows us to share information across the world in a blink of an eye. However, current energy models are having a detrimental effect on the environment and the climate, therefore a transition to sustainable and renewable energy sources is needed if we want to halt the ongoing transformation of our planet.

What will the future of energy technology hold? How can innovation in this field bring a positive impact to society and the environment at large? Electrification of energy systems and energy efficiency are two ways to achieve a more sustainable future.

This is exactly what Irish serial entrepreneur Norman Crowley has been up to. Over the years, Norman has founded and sold three companies for over €638 million before the age of 40. He is the founder and CEO of the Cool Planet Group which comprises three companies – energy efficiency company Crowley Carbon, solar power firm Crowley Solar and electric car business Electrifi.

Hello Norman, thank you for joining us. Could you please give us a short overview about your journey as an entrepreneur as well as your work in energy technology? 

I have always been very entrepreneurial. I started my first business, a welding company, when I was just 16. It was based in Cork, Ireland and had 8 employees within a year. I sold that business when I turned 20. I then started a computer and internet business called Trinity Commerce, growing the company to 170 employees, and selling it for €18 million. I retired at the age of 28 but got bored after three months and came out of retirement. Since then, I have founded 5 other companies.

After selling three companies for $750 million (approx. 635 million) before the age of 40, I decided my next venture had to be about more than money. I wanted to have an impact, make a difference in the world. The most existential threat to the world now is climate change, so I chose to help tackle that. I set up Crowley Carbon with the mission to make companies more energy efficient, as $3 trillion (approx. 2.5 trillion) of energy is wasted every year.

The Cool Planet Group is based in Ireland. What is your opinion on the environment for creating tech companies there? 

There is a very vibrant startup scene in Ireland with numerous co-working spaces, accelerator programmes, founder events and tech conferences. Whether you are a solo founder of a lifestyle business, or a co-founder of a venture backed tech startup, you will be able to find likeminded people to lean on and learn from.

Enterprise Ireland, the government agency responsible for the development and growth of Irish businesses in world markets, is a great support to Irish startups. We received funding from Enterprise Ireland, as well as assistance in breaking into new markets globally.

You are currently running three companies. Could you tell us about the challenge of leading your businesses and managing 250+ employees remotely during a pandemic?  

We have quite a unique culture in our business. It’s based on trust and hard work. Our employees have the freedom to manage their own days and time off on the basis that their work is done and nothing is overlooked. It’s what’s called ‘mission-led’. You do the mission, that’s the job. But if you didn’t notice that morning that there was a crisis with one of your clients, then there’s trouble. It works for most people, not for others who need more direction, and that’s fine too.

Over the years you founded several companies, such as Inspired Gaming Group or The Cloud. What is your philosophy that drives you? 

Have a plan and keep walking. In my early days as an entrepreneur, I used to have anxiety when it came to making some difficult business decisions. I saw an advert, promoting the art of walking on hot coals, to reduce anxiety. I signed up to learn how to walk on hot coals. It has helped me a lot as there are many similarities between walking on hot coals and running a business. As you start to walk, you have to be very clear about the destination, because if you stop half-way or turn, it’s too late, you will burn. In firewalking, you are fearful just before you take the first step, and then it’s gone, because you’ve got a plan and you’ve made the decision.

Electrifi converts classic luxury cars (Lamborghini, Ferrari, Aston Martin) into high performance electric cars using Tesla components. Could you tell us a bit more about the process and the end goal? 

At Electrifi, we take iconic classic car brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin, and modify them into green hypercars. The cars are rebuilt, optimised with the latest technology and powered by a Tesla engine. They have a performance specification on par with a Formula 1 racing car and can hit speeds of 0 to 60mph in under 2 seconds. They can also deliver a driving range of 600km. At a time when petrol and diesel cars are blamed for pollution and poor air quality, Electrifi offers the combination of top speed and performance, combined with sustainability and luxury.

Crowley Solar is paving the way for Irish solar power. What would you say to other Irish entrepreneurs looking to engage in the energy sector? 

There are many myths in relation to solar that need to be debunked, with a general understanding that because it rains a lot here in Ireland, we have little or no hope of generating electricity from the sun. However, a simple 30m² of solar can power the average house and lucky for us in Ireland, solar continues to work, even when it is raining.

Ireland also has another unique advantage as a solar candidate for energy production in that the technology works even better in areas with low pollution levels. With Ireland’s low industrial density, clean air and constant prevailing ocean winds, the reasons as obvious, fewer pollutants in the atmosphere makes it easier for the sun’s rays to penetrate through to the earth.

What do you think of the future of energy technology? Any trend we should watch out for?  

Transport will go electric and autonomous over the next 10 years. When looking at all the data, nothing can stop this from happening. Electric cars require almost no servicing so this is a very advantageous choice for a consumer to make.

What is the main lesson you have learned as a serial entrepreneur and founder?  

Get back up on the horse and go again. Not everything will go right in business. There will be some really hard times when you are doing a lot of firefighting. People think that as you get bigger you are more removed from the firefighting, but actually just as the numbers get bigger, so too do the risks.