Customer stories: SteamaCo

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MSP is home to a large and diverse community of innovators and entrepreneurs, so it is always exciting to meet with our customers and hear about their latest successes happening right here on our Central Campus.

Last month we met with one of our newest customers, SteamaCO, who are pioneering digital innovation with one big goal in sight - to bring affordable, smart energy to rural parts of the world.

To date, 1.3 billion people worldwide (a fifth of humanity) are not connected to modern, affordable, clean energy.

We spoke with co-founder and CEO of SteamaCo, Harrison Leaf, to find out how they are tapping into the mobile and IoT revolution to help rural communities across Africa and other parts of the world get access to energy.

1.How would you describe what SteamaCo does?

We want to deliver clean, cheap and convenient energy to those who don’t have it. When SteamaCo was originally founded in 2010, we started as an engineering procurement company, which focused on more traditional methods of supplying power like batteries and solar power.

As we started to look more in depth at rural parts of the world, we realised that whilst many people weren’t connected to any grid system, the automotive supply chain into really remote parts of the world was extensive, particularly in Africa. The materials needed to build energy devices were there, but how do you sell power to someone that doesn’t have a bank account? And how can a technician get a meter reading without a road or proper address for the house?

Our ‘lightbulb’ moment came in 2014 when we realised that we needed to use the power of mobile and Internet of Things to overcome these issues. Although many people in rural parts of the world did not have access to power and water, what many of them did have is a mobile phone.

With this in mind, we knew we needed to create smart technologies that could tap into this growing ‘industrial internet’ market and which could be accessible by mobile phones. Without the smart technology, not only do you end up with grid systems that cannot be distributed widely enough to reach rural areas, but you would have to sell power generation equipment that is not affordable or feasible for people who don’t even have a bank account.

To overcome this, we created one of the first smart meter technologies that can connect utility assets in remote off-grid locations, such as micro-grids and solar power, to The Internet. Our cloud based software means that we can monetise assets already out there, and give people a means of paying for energy. Anyone that has a mobile phone is able to access power simply by topping up their credit as they would a pay-as-you-go phone.

This universal smart meter means data can be analysed and payments processed via the cloud, allowing utilities to be switched on and off within seconds.

2. What is SteamaCo currently working on?

Our biggest priority is to drive the cost of our product down. In 2016, our smart meter was priced at $65, now we have managed to reduce this cost to $35.

At the moment we are working in seven countries, our largest market is Africa as 50% of the world’s unconnected population is there. However, we are constantly looking at new markets and are hoping to bring our software to other rural parts of the world, for example we’re now serving companies in Guatemala and Costa Rica.

It is fundamental to us that we really understand the end consumer and work with them to get to know their needs, rather than simply sending off our software with no real insight into what different communities need.

3.What are you most proud of in terms of SteamaCo’s successes and achievements?

Probably the intellectual honesty behind our product. We really try to understand the end consumer in order to develop and deliver the best technology, which is why we maintain design labs in Kenya and South Africa. It is great to know that our technology is finally giving a voice to the unheard, and allowing people around the world to have something which is such a basic need.

In 2015, we were awarded the Ashden Award for Business Innovation and sustainable solutions and last year we were listed on the Global Cleantech 100 Ones to Watch list.

4. What is your favourite thing about working in the digital technology sector?

The digital technology sector is growing at pace and as it does, our expectations of technology also grow. By developing the type of smart technologies which SteamaCo has, it really restores a sense of optimism in technology’s ability to solve some of the world’s big problems. It really can improve people’s lives with its ability to connect the unconnected, especially if it means getting energy to people around the world - something we take for granted every day.

Working in this sector also means being right at the cutting edge of technology. It is exciting to be at the centre of innovations that are fuelling Internet of Things technologies and connecting communities, cities and the world for the greater good.

5. What is your favourite thing about working in Manchester and being based at Manchester Science Partnerships?

The accents.

Jokes aside, Manchester is a hugely accessible city with so much to offer without the grind that comes with living in a city like London. Since SteamaCo is an ideas company, it is great to work in a place that is so well connected, especially as Manchester prepares to become the first IoT test bed with its CityVerve project at MSP. This is one of the big reasons we were attracted to locate our business here. We love being based at MSP and working alongside other innovative companies and projects. It is the perfect environment for us to create original thought and ideas, whilst being at the centre of everything the city has to offer.