Venture capitalist blown away by University-born small wind turbine startup
Compact, yet offering the highest energy output in its class, a small wind turbine innovation is attracting large commercial investment in a bid to improve remote and emergency telecommunication access.
The University of Newcastle-based start-up, Diffuse Energy, has secured $400,000 in seed funding from Australian venture capital fund, Shearwater Growth Equity, to scale production of its promising renewable energy option.
An idea born from PhD research, engineers Dr Joss Kesby, Dr Sam Evans and James Bradley, now co-founders of Diffuse Energy, are reimagining wind energy.
Unlike a traditional open-blade wind turbine which may be as large 160 metres in diameter, their invention spans less than a metre. This is achieved by enclosing the blades within a diffuser, which draws more air through the turbine to boost power while taking up less space.
CEO of Diffuse Energy, Dr Joss Kesby said they were changing the way telecommunications companies buy renewable energy infrastructure.
“Our commercial model removes upfront hardware costs in favour of a monthly subscription, eliminating major barriers associated with technology uptake and deployment,” said Dr Kesby.
Suitable for the toughest off-grid environments in Australia, the scaled-down, lightweight turbines plug into existing telecommunications infrastructure, enabling rapid setup of turbines onto towers in hard-to-service locations, and converting them from diesel power generation to cheaper, more environmentally friendly wind-power.
“We know small wind can solve the unique challenges of powering telecommunications infrastructure in remote locations and under critical emergency scenarios. The challenge has been how to deploy at scale in remote and off-grid locations in the most cost-effective manner possible,” said Dr Kesby.
The funding covers the employment cost of three full-time staff to scale Diffuse Energy’s capability for production so that a potential of hundreds of units can be manufactured if there is demand.
Managing Partner of Shearwater Growth Equity, Zac Zavos said they invested in Diffuse Energy because they were operating in an unambiguously large and growing renewable energy market.
“Small wind is the natural complement to solar in that wind often blows when the sun isn’t shining. The founding team are very strong and committed to building a generationally great company. We saw the potential for software-like recurring revenue from their small wind turbines,” said Mr Zavos.
Powering critical telecommunications in the NSW summer bushfires
Diffuse Energy proved the value of its technology for Vertel, Australia’s leading provider of mission and life-critical telecommunication network services in late 2019. The Diffuse Energy small wind turbines continued to power critical voice and data services for NSW Police, Rural Fire Services, State Emergency Services and NSW Health while catastrophic bushfires raged throughout the Mid North Coast and Coffs Harbour region.
Executive Director of Vertel, Andrew Findlay said the Diffuse Energy wind turbine provided alternative power to key communication sites during a time when many sites were affected by mains power failure.
“Not only could we monitor energy production and consumption remotely and in real-time, but we were able to keep our sites and network services running for our government and the emergency services customers when they needed it most to support communities,” said Mr Findlay.
Diffuse Energy’s small wind turbines are not only applicable to telecommunications companies, their use extends to remote mine operators, utilities, off-grid communities and even tiny-home designers interested in small-format, high-output systems.
Creating Work-integrated Learning opportunities to engage students with industry
As residents of the University’s Integrated Innovation Network (I2N) Hub in Williamtown, the Diffuse Energy team said the opportunity to incubate with like-minded innovators and entrepreneurs in a co-working space helped motivate them through the challenges and triumphs of creating a startup.
Leveraging their ties with the University of Newcastle and promoting the value of collaboration, Dr Kesby, a conjoint Lecturer with the School of Engineering said Diffuse Energy supervised three final-year project Honours students, and offered intern opportunities to students.
“The whole idea for our small wind turbines began when Sam, James and I were engineering students at the University of Newcastle, so it’s rewarding to be able to help support students on a similar trajectory,” Dr Kesby said.
Fellow Co-founders of Diffuse Energy, Dr Sam Evans and James Bradley also work at the University of Newcastle as Conjoint Senior Lecturer and Professional Officer, respectively, with the School of Engineering.
With parts of the small wind turbine manufactured locally in the Hunter, and the controller and electronics designed by Newie Ventures, the startup is supporting the Hunter region’s innovation and economy.
University of Newcastle’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alex Zelinsky, said the success of Diffuse Energy is another example of how our University alumni and researchers were excelling in the renewable energy space and capturing commercial interest.
“Building a sustainable future is a top priority for our University,” Professor Zelinsky said.
“Not only are these innovators helping to make our world more sustainable, they are contributing to job creation in our region and boosting opportunities for our students.”