Today National Grid, the large U.S. and U.K.-listed utility provider, has announced the launch of a multi-part venture arm called National Grid Partners. The group is bringing a $250 million corporate venture shop to the market, along with a grip of other startup-focused activities and five completed investments.
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Helming it all is Lisa Lambert, whose hiring earlier this year presaged what was to come for National Grid. Lambert is perhaps best known for her 19-year run at Intel Capital (her investments included CollabNet, SilkRoad Technology, and Brit + Co, according to Crunchbase), and her time at cleantech investment group The Westley Group.
Crunchbase News caught up with Lambert on the phone earlier this week. Let’s explore what she’s up to.
The utility sector is perhaps the opposite of the venture industry. Utilities are staid, dividend-generating entities that are growth-constrained by geographic boundaries and the fact that you can only charge so much for heat, or you price out lower-income consumers. [You can’t go Full Iniquity if you are a utility, in other words.]
So it’s not the sort of industry that we cover much. And that’s why National Grid is launching National Grid Partners; it wants to get a look into what tech is coming next that might impact the sector and help it find more growth considering its historically conservative nature.
But why now? Lambert has a few reasons. First, that the late aughts cleantech Period of Troubles didn’t kill all cleantech and otherwise energy-related startups. Indeed, according to Lambert, some “ground it out” and survived. If you managed to stay afloat when all the startups in your niche are imploding, you’re probably onto something.
Lambert also noted that the startups in her investing area aren’t in fashion, really. That makes them slightly contrarian bets at a time when lemming-like behavior is rampant. Throw that into the mix with the companies left over from the last cleantech boom and you have a selection of startups across vintages to choose from.
But there’s more to Lambert’s work than her $250 million corporate venture vehicle. National Grid Partners is also working with younger companies (Seed and Series A stage) and helping some with business development work. (I presume this is one way that National Grid will get its eyes on younger tech that it might want to snag for itself). The venture arm also is working on something concerning “innovation” that remains somewhat amorphous for now.
Add it all together, and the new Partners group is almost a full-stack startup engine, provided that companies meet its investing and interest criteria.
That criteria is at once broad and narrow. Lambert noted to Crunchbase News she may invest in SaaS, cybersecurity, or IT-focused startups. But when you examine her newly-announced deals, you can catch a theme: Omnidian is a consumer solar play aimed at promised output, AutoGrid does analytics for energy data, ClimaCell is a weather forecast company, Sitetracker is a SaaS platform that I can’t quite fathom, and Leap gives consumer incentives to cut peak power consumption.
Overall, the investments are mostly power or energy-related. That’s unsurprising but fits into the two-fold mandate that Lambert’s capital comes with. She has to generate strategic return (insight, business optionality, threat warnings) and financial return (traditional venture effluent). That’s a big challenge, but since her job at Intel Capital likely held the same requirements, she’s prepared.