Principal Program Manager, National Grid
As an employee of a multinational, multibillion-dollar utility, you might expect Christopher Cavanagh to be a great champion of corporate innovation.
And he is – the principal program manager in charge of National Grid’s Customer Innovation and Development is a big fan of large-scale innovations, including the modernization of National Grid’s gas-distribution services and the development of various low-carbon (and no-carbon) utility solutions.
But through his work at National Grid, where part of the job is evaluating third-party technologies, and several extracurricular efforts, Cavanagh has come to one inescapable conclusion: Some of the best innovating is happening “in the incubator environment” – the little guys, upstarting their way into the larger world.
“[Research and development] doesn’t always get the attention it deserves in large utilities,” Cavanagh says. “In the past, it was all big companies funding the new breakthroughs. But in today’s world, it’s the incubator space – the new clean-tech community – that’s really providing the best ideas.”
And it’s “an exciting time” when it comes to independent clean-energy research, as evidenced by Cavanagh’s busy schedule. The licensed professional engineer – who holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Cooper Union, a Master of Science from Polytechnic University and an MBA from Dowling College – enjoys front-row seats to clean-gen’s cutting edge both at his day job and as a member of the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program (CEBIP) Advisory Board, where the gravitas of his fellow board members speaks for itself.
“I love the mix of business folks David (Hamilton) brings in,” says Cavanagh, who’s graced the CEBIP board for two years. “He brings in people who advise venture capitalists and faculty from the university’s business school and great technical minds – the relationship with Brookhaven National Laboratory is huge, a direct pipeline to one of the only national laboratories in the United States doing energy development.”
This caliber of talent and experience, Cavanagh adds, is as important to the CEBIP program as its multitude of business-building resources.
“It means that if a business gets through this place, it has some real potential,” he notes. “I can say that nothing silly has gotten out of this program.”
The member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers and longtime judge at NYC FIRST Robotics Competitions is also a frequent contributor to the PowerBridgeNY and Cleantech Open programs, both focused on turning campus ideas into commercial enterprises.
While acknowledging those programs have much in common with CEBIP, Cavanagh defines them as “similar but different.” PowerBridgeNY, which prepares technically adept college teams to think like businesspeople, and the Cleantech Open, geared more toward established startups looking to expand, each contain elements of CEBIP’s business-building programming – but “CEBIP does both,” he notes.
“It takes the best of CleanTech Open, with its heavy business focus, and the best of PowerBridgeNY, with its heavy technical focus,” Cavanagh adds. “It’s kind of the next level.”
The results of this next-level thinking are evident in the quality of CEBIP clients, according to Cavanagh, who’s particularly fond of ThermoLift, the next-gen heat-pump startup and standard-bearer for the Stony Brook University innovation ecosystem.
“Several CEBIP clients are doing things that are very relevant, and ThermoLift is a shining example,” Cavanagh says. “That’s clearly a technology that can be transformational, a kind of holy grail for the natural gas industry.”
And proof positive of the out-of-the-box thinking separating the independent incubator world from the relative confines of corporate innovation.
“As a big utility in the Northeast, probably the biggest, National Grid has a lot of R&D resources and a lot of programs,” Cavanagh notes. “But the ideas from a place like CEBIP are fresher – they are less restrained than a lot of corporate proposals.
“These are mostly folks who started in the university world and endeavored to become businesses, whereas the others are already businesses looking to add new revenue streams,” he adds. “Sometimes, they’re constrained by their own business models.
“But CEBIP clients are not constrained by anything, which is gold.”