At the heart of Diffuse Energy’s success is their world-class technology: the world’s most efficient small-scale wind turbine. The renewable energy device was developed by CEO Joss Kesby as part of his PhD at the University of Newcastle, which is where he met his co-founders, Sam Evans and James Bradley.
Diffuse Energy’s journey as a startup arguably started at another Novocastrian institution: weekend brunch by the beach. “I was with my family in a café when I saw a flyer for I2N’s Startup Stories with Heath Raftery,” Joss remembers.
At the time, Joss was still finalising his PhD thesis and wondering how to move forward with the technology he had developed. It was at the I2N networking event that he began to connect with his local entrepreneurial community, and where he was encouraged to apply for CSIRO’s ON Prime program. He took his colleagues Sam and James along with him to a briefing event to learn more about the then nation’s leading technology incubator.
“The whole idea of the program was to take technology out of the lab and into the real world,” explains Joss. Indeed, while Australian research outputs are ranked in the top ten globally, we tend to fall short at commercialisation and research translation.
The group enrolled in the program, and as they learned about the tech and start up industry, they realised how much potential their idea had. They moved on to the second stage of the incubator project, ON Accelerate, and began pitching their idea to potential investors, collaborators, and clients.
As the team progressed along their startup journey, it became clear that they needed to be dedicating more time to the business, which meant some major decisions for the team. “We had all been on the path to academia: we had entry level teaching positions, and we were publishing papers. But we had the realisation that if we really wanted to develop this technology then it was best done outside of academia,” explains Joss.
The crew left their positions and moved into the I2N Hub at Williamtown. “They have been a huge, huge support to us. Starting your own venture can be quite challenging, and it’s good to have someone who is in your corner, who is willing to back you as a company.”
Though they had the support of the university and their community, and they were fast learning the ins and outs of business management, there was still a lot of work to be done to scale the technology up to an MVP, explains Joss. “Our background was more in the aerodynamics and the structural design of the wind turbine, but at the time we didn't appreciate the magnitude of actually converting that into usable electrical energy. There's a wide range of batteries and system designs and solar PV (photo-voltaic) modules, and it's quite challenging to develop a controller that is just ‘plug and play’ and will connect seamlessly with a wide range of systems. We knew Heath Raftery had done some previous work with small wind turbine control systems, so we approached his consultancy, Newie Ventures, and began working with them.”
Once their MVP was developed, the team set about the manufacturing stage of their start-up journey. Interestingly, around 80% of the wind turbine components are made in NSW, and much of that is within the Hunter region itself. “With that local expertise, we’ve been able to just pick up the phone and have a chat with someone or jump in the car and drive ten minutes down the road to work out any teething issues.”
Diffuse Energy now has an assortment of clients across the country, who access the off-grid turbines and the team’s expertise and support via a subscription model. The model is ideal for these clients as, as Joss explains, large industrial sites rarely want to be owning hardware or assets which require specific expertise. In addition, it stops them from being locked-in to one particular system. “We’re basically saying, ‘We know it’s good, we’re putting our money where our mouth is: we’ll give you all the support you need.’”
Joss is excited to be a part of the renewable energy scene in Newcastle, and he knows that there’s even better things to come for the region. “At the same time as we’re going through this cultural emergence from a post heavy-industry period, we’ve also got access to the energy grid, to the CSIRO Energy Centre at Mayfield, to the university…and maybe people aren't so aware of it, because a lot of it is very industry focused: but Newcastle is going to be a big player in the renewable space for a long time to come.”