For maximum engagement with the energy transition and to anticipate the future needs of its customers, French energy giant Engie relies on its network of nine research centres – the Engie Labs – located in various sites and permanently spanning the world.
Crigen, Laborelec, Cylergie, Tractebel…in terms of research and development (R&D), the majority of research work is carried out in the nine Engie Labs across the globe – including six in Europe – where the French energy giant develops its research in its different fields of expertise and builds close partnerships with local universities, other research centres, manufacturers and start-ups. “We have a corporate research programme centred on a number of research labs around the world. These include Lab Crigen, just outside Paris, and Lab Laborelec in Brussels, as well as colleagues at labs in Singapore, Santiago in Chili, and the Middle East” explains Isabelle Moretti, director of R&D at Engie. “Each lab is dedicated to a specific field (such as smart cities, buildings, industry 4.0, sustainable transport etc.) and work is structured by research focus”.
In other words, several of the labs – even those which are distant in geographical terms, work on projects jointly, with each bringing their own expertise. Isabelle Moretti continues: “using the example of sustainable transport, Lab Laborelec will be working on issues around charging and integration of electric cars, whilst colleagues at Lab Crigen will be developing solutions for natural gas cars and buses”. Lab Crigen is Engie’s research and operational expertise centre dedicated to gases, new energy sources and emerging technologies, whilst Lab Laborelec specialises in electricity, and more specifically the optimisation of electricity generation, distribution and supply processes.
Several labs mobilised on the same project
Several of the Engie Labs can be mobilised to work together on the same research and innovation project. An example where this is happening is Semakau Island in Singapore (where Engie opened a research centre in June 2016), where it is leading a pilot project to make off-grid territories energy self-sufficient. “We are in the process of transforming Semakau Island – an industrial island location where no one lives but where many people work during the daytime – into an energy autonomous island using photovoltaic panels, a wind turbine, battery storage, fuel cells and a hydrogen system for storage and for fuelling hydrogen cars,” explains Isabelle Moretti. Depending on weather conditions and the time of day, the electricity generated by the solar panels and wind turbine can be used straight away or alternatively the surplus can be stored in batteries or converted into hydrogen gas for later use”.
The lessons learned, and data sourced from the Singapore project, will then be put to work on a project in France, this time on an island that is home to several thousand residents – both day and night. “The technologies we deploy have already been trialled in our laboratories, notably Lab Crigen and Lab Laborelec, then in Singapore during a semi-industrial prototyping phase and now for a full industrial prototyping for actual deployment in France,” adds Philippe Bourguignon, director of the SEAS project (Smart Energy Aware Systems).
ENGIE start-up incubation process
Alongside the projects taking place in its own research centres, Engie regularly initiates calls for projects or calls to participate, with a view to meeting business or site needs in its strategic fields of activity. For example, the group purchases stakes in young start-ups companies that are developing innovative solutions (or in some cases buys them outright). It recently invested in Heliatek, a German company that develops and manufactures organic solar films: “Engie became a shareholder in Heliatek and we provide assistance in strengthening their position in the sector,” explains Isabelle Moretti. “Initially we used all our research centres to test their films, run pilot projects, and provide feedback on their effectiveness. More recently, in November 2017, we moved the product onto a much larger-scale deployment with the installation of organic photovoltaic film panels on the roof a school in La Rochelle. We also strive to stimulate and incubate in-house innovation so that staff members can submit ideas and move into entrepreneurship. At Lab Crigen, for example, a colleague had been working on natural biopolymers produced by living bacteria and her research provided a “green” solution to the problem biofouling (accumulation of microorganisms, on wetted surfaces) that avoids the necessity of adding chorine to water. The colleague’s idea was incubated within Engie’s in-house innovation hub and following approval of her business plan – was taken forward with the aim of setting up her own company and marketing her green biopolymer solution”.
Engie and other large industrial groups play a major role in incubating and developing start-ups, but equally active in this field are France’s top engineering and science schools. In 2001, Centrale-Supélec (the Paris-based higher education applied science and engineering school) opened “The Incubator”, which itself became a separate institution in 2007. It is open to students and graduates of Centrale-Supélec, although not exclusively. The projects it incubates are at the earliest developmental stages: “projects are chosen by a committee of entrepreneurs and company executives, with selection based more on the applicant’s entrepreneurial skills than on the technological dimensions of the project”, explains Gilles Gleyze, assistant director of Centrale-Supélec. In effect, the support is centred on turning the project leader into a veritable entrepreneur. In terms of technical development, the start-ups we host and support have access to the school’s research laboratories, and the Incubator is fully equipped with a fab lab for prototyping. Centrale-Supélec also supports enterprise creation through its open-innovation institute, launched in 2004, which seeks to initiate contacts between large companies and the start-ups: “large industrial groups provide financing and issue calls for projects in fields that interest them” continues Gilles Gleyze. “It is a matter of diversifying their research and investment processes”.
The Centrale-Supélec Incubator in numbers:
15 to 20 start-ups supported in their development at the Incubator at any one time;
70 companies hosted by the Incubator and almost 600 jobs created at start-ups that now generate a turnover of 201 million euros.