It was while strapped to a gigantic wind turbine that Phil Livingston, the serial entrepreneur behind Redback Technologies, realised his ambition in life – to bring renewable energy to the masses.
Founded by Livingston in April 2015, Redback Technologies is in the business of developing intelligent, low cost solar energy solutions for residential and commercial users. After securing a $9.3 million investment from EnergyAustralia, last year, the Brisbane-based startup gained significant traction. The strategic partnership saw EnergyAustralia actively promote Redback’s hero product – the Smart Hybrid System – to its 1.7 million customers, which – as Livingston explained “massively accelerated our strategic plan for the mass adoption of renewables”.
Since then, Redback’s mission to transform Australia into a nation powered by renewable energy has been championed by other investors. Earlier this year, it received $1.96 million from the Queensland Government, by way of Energy Queensland and Advance Queensland, to further develop its offering. More recently, Clean Energy Innovation Fund and Right Click Capital injected a combined $8.99 million into the startup to boost its R&D capabilities and grow its workforce from 55 to 85 employees by early next year. In addition, Redback has established partnerships with Duserve Facilities Management in Dubai and Contact Energy in New Zealand as it looks to expand globally.
A veteran of the solar energy sector as a startup founder (zincsolar, Sungrid), an executive (Go energy Group) and a board member (Energy Storage Council, Solar Energy International), Livingston spoke to Dynamic Business about the success of Redback Technologies and the importance of remaining level-headed and laser-focused as his company taps into the “unstoppable trend towards renewables” in Australia.
DB: What is the elevator pitch for Redback’s first offering?
Livingston: The Smart Hybrid System is a smart solar PV inverter and battery enclosure that captures, stores and manages solar power, providing a faster ROI than many other comparative offerings on the market. The system addresses the desire amongst customers for affordable and reliable energy by enabling them to not just self-generate and store power but also monitor and optimise its usage via a smart device.
Critically, the system enables customers to use up leftover solar power captured during the “solar window”. This means customers can employ excess self-generated power in their own homes, rather than having to send it to – and later buy it back from – the grid. It also means they have the ability to back up critical loads during power outages.
DB: From where does your passion for renewables stem?
Livingston: My interest in renewable power started in my undergraduate studies, where I learnt how countries implement sustainable energy systems. After I finished college I found myself working in a call centre in a job I didn’t enjoy. I enrolled in a course for small scale wind power as a side interest and a few weeks later found myself strapped to a wind turbine 40 metres off the ground. The sun was setting, the mist was rolling in and it was at this moment that I had an epiphany and knew that I would work in renewables for the rest of my life. I realised that the integration of renewables had the ability to democratise energy, providing transformative outcomes for global populations that previously could only access such resources via a centralised generation system under the control of the few. With renewable resources of various types evenly distributed around the planet, gaining equal access to clean energy for much of the world’s populations was a vision I could connect with, an idea that gives one’s life meaning. Every job I’ve had since attending that wind class with SEI in 2002 has been involved, in some way, with the field of renewables..
My experience spans installing solar water pumping systems in the Philippines with the U.S. Peace Corps to installing commercial solar systems in California – I have consistently strived to bring renewables to the masses.
The common thread in all of my start-ups has been a relentless focus on reducing the cost of solar systems and implementing financial leasing arrangements for those who could not afford the upfront costs (the first solar lease in Australia) to accelerate the adoption of renewables in Australia.
DB: How is Redback informed by your previous startups?
Livingston: The creation of Redback Technologies marks the high point of my career to date and applies all I have learnt along the way to drive forward the transition to become a nation powered by renewables. Redback Technologies is different to the other start-ups I’ve led, our solutions democratise consumers’ access to energy and were developed at a time of significant advances in machine learning, resulting in significant cost reduction and environmental benefit. The technology we’ve developed enables consumers to be self-reliant by using solar panels and energy storage solutions.
DB: What sort of strategies have fuelled Redback’s growth?
Livingston: At Redback, we look at problems as systems rather than parts. Where people would often draw boundaries on a problem, we think more broadly about which other industries will use the technologies we develop. It’s this kind of thinking that enables us to develop solutions for problems of the future that people today don’t realise exist. By continually developing these kinds of solutions, we’re giving our customers the tools to transact in the new energy economy.
DB: What is the greatest challenge you have faced?
Livingston: One of the greatest challenges is to not become complacent when a startup begins to succeed. It’s important to retain that startup mentality and grit and not to lose sight of the mission and vision of a business when you grow. For me, that vision is to enable every household and business to be powered by low cost renewable power.
Now, the challenge is to remain laser-focused on that mission. This doesn’t mean the business shouldn’t pivot where new opportunities for growth present themselves, so long as that translates value to employees, shareholders and investors and remains true to our vision.
DB: What has been a key milestone with Redback?
Livingston: It became clear in the early stages of Redback that to provide services to utilities better than competitors, we needed to get a utility company as an investor. The investment by EnergyAustralia provided us with not only a scale channel to market but also direct access to insights to the product features that are of value to both utility partners and end consumers. It also enables us to co-create business models that will achieve mass appeal in the market.
DB: What is the mantra that you live by in business?
Livingston: Tim Ungar, Chairman of the Board at TSA Group once told me to ‘live and exist on the smell of an oily rag’, which I live by in business.
Also, I’ve learnt that its important, as a founder, not allow my emotions to cloud my judgement especially as start-ups can be like rollercoasters, with extreme highs and lows. While I have experienced a lot of success in my field, I have learnt to keep a level head and focus on the bigger picture – the development of a high-growth, scalable business that works towards a future powered by renewable energy.
DB: How ripe is Australia’s energy market for disruption?
Livingston: The existing energy paradigm is ripe for disruption and we’re seeing a hotbed of innovation across the sector. The centralised model of electricity generation and delivery dominated by large incumbents is now being disrupted by a wave of new technologies that sees consumers able to produce and manage their own energy on site. The latest statistics of household solar use show the unstoppable trend towards renewables. In the long term, these technologies have the potential to completely transform home energy provision and disrupt the current energy retail market, laying the foundation for decentralised energy generation and trading.
DB: How do you plan to continue growing Redback?
Livingston: We are doubling down on our investments in data science and software development, leveraging new technologies such as machine learning and IoT to continue delivering more value to our customers and accelerate the integration of renewable into the grid. We continue to drive software innovation, with a roadmap of major feature releases being progressively deployed over the next 12 months. We’re also working on an advanced, low-cost hardware solution that will drive rapid uptake of our software platform.