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Today you’re going to hear the story of Andrew Mears and SwitchDin. SwitchDin provides software and hardware solutions for managing distributed energy resources. SwitchDin connects with utilities to help them work more efficiently with the grid.
We’re going to hear all about SwitchDin, where the idea come from, Andrew’s backpacking adventures, the pivots that SwitchDin has gone through and so much more, but for now, let’s go back to day one where this story begins…
If you’ve got an idea and you’ve got some great people to work with, then just go and make it happen. It’s much more possible now than it was back then.
Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and welcome to day one, the show that goes back to the very beginning, to share the untold stories of incredible regional startups and entrepreneurs.
Today you’re going to hear the story of Andrew Mears & SwitchDin.
Andrew Mears. I’m CEO and founder of SwitchDin SwitchDin provides software and hardware solution for managing distributed energy resources. In particular, rooftop solar, battery storage. We connect with utilities to help them work more efficiently with the grid.
We’re going to hear all about SwitchDin, where the idea come from, Andrew’s backpacking adventures, the pivots that SwitchDin has gone through and so much more, but for now, let’s go back to day one where this story begins…
I started as a fitter and turner trade apprentice, at the apprentice training centre at BHP. That’s what they did with all their engineering trainees.
Today Newcastle and the Hunter Valley where Andrew is based is a growing regional innovation and startup centre, driven by a variety of organisations from the University of Newcastle to smaller grassroots organisations run by passionate individuals, like Newy Startups and the Lunatick Society and everything in between. But 20 years ago, Newcastle was a very different town and BHP played a large part in that.
I was fortunate to get a job with BHP as a training engineer. Back in the day, training engineers also were put through the apprentice training program. I started as a mechanical engineering trainee.
I was a degree trainee. They were going to pay for me to go through university part-time. Then, for the first couple of years, you were also working as an apprentice at the steelworks. It was a great program, actually. It gave all the young engineers firsthand experience of the technical stuff that goes on.
As part of that traineeship, Andrew would get moved around to various sections within BHP.
You get rotated around. I didn’t stay there for the whole course of things. I was taken on as a mechanical engineer. My heart was really in electrical and computer systems. After a while, I sought to change over. That wasn’t going to work with BHP. I left and went full-time uni to finish as an electrical engineer.
Why was your heart in electrical engineering? What was it about that that drew you to that?
I guess I’d always been, as a kid, a little bit geeky, mucking around with electronics and radios and software. That was really where I wanted to go. There was a lot of interesting stuff around mechanical engineering. Right then, that was what had my imagination. It was back in the day when the university was free. I was one of the last group to go through for free education. You could choose. You could focus on what you really wanted. That’s what I did.
I graduated and the first job I got out of Uni was with a company that was building control systems. I managed to convince them to fund me to do my masters by research. It was a great combo. Basically, I had a job to do my masters degree by research. For that company, I developed a new product, a control device.
I was the guy doing the nuts and bolts work. It was a great start. I guess it really, for me, that whole research commercialization area has been a consistent thread through lots of my career.
The controller that I developed, I then developed the control algorithms to improve that manufacturing process. That was my masters’ thesis. It also really got me into the whole renewable energy area. I started to think, “Wow, that’s amazing technology.”
It’s the late 1980’s now and in terms of renewable energy, it was…
Definitely early days, early adopters. About the same time, certainly towards the end of my undergrad university, I started to get very interested in environmental issues. It definitely resonated in that context.
Again, I’m just going to ask why? What drew you to that?
To be truthful, it was probably a girl I was trying to impress. Then, something resonated. I love a good idea and a good challenge. For example, when I finished my first year, the first thing I did was jump on a plane and go down to Tasmania and join the protest down there for the Franklin River. Just being a part of that and getting a sense, too, that as engineers and the whole technology, the technological aspects of our society, we have such a responsibility to make the right decisions to connect with the bigger picture. That’s always characterized my work as an engineer. It’s often brought me into conflict with other engineering thinkers.
After that, I finished my masters and launched into my first startup.
2 buddies from uni, we worked with one of the academics and took a system which they had developed for controlling radio telescopes for tracking geostationary satellites. We modified it to be used with much larger telecommunication satellite dishes. We bid on some big projects. We competed against companies like Electrospace, which was a spinoff of NASA. We won a couple of contracts. It was a pretty daunting prospect. We used what, at the time, were new technologies. It meant that we could do things cost effectively, compared to these older corporates. That was really the first start.
SFX: Tape stopped and rewind…
Hang on a second, did Andrew just say NASA. As in North American Space Agency, which is what I thought it was called. What it’s actually called, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I had to go deeper, on that. Because what we have here is a Newcastle Startup, before startups were really a thing going up against NASA for a job, tell me more Andrew…
Yes. I guess the thing that got that venture going was a project we bid on for the OTC, which used to be Pre-Telstra, was the Overseas Telecommunications Corporation of Australia. They handled all international communications. They were tendering for a supply of some big, new satellite communication dishes. We bid on the control system. Now, for that we went up against a company, our main competitor was a company called Electrospace, which was a spinoff of NASA. We won those contracts. That early heady day gave me a sense that there was a lot to be done. It gave me a new scope about how innovation engineering sorts of opportunities you can have.
Wow, and now, I just need to hit pause. Because Andrew has a very unique perspective in that he was part of a startup in the early ’90s then left Newcastle and Australia for 20 years, basically, and has come back to Newcastle and has founded a startup in the 2010s. I wanted to get Andrew’s thoughts on that…
I wouldn’t say it’s easier. I think probably my ambitions are loftier now. Whereas, my goal and my naivete were higher back then, which can carry you a long way. A whole lot of things have come together, which enable small teams now to do amazing things. The whole open source movement, cloud-based computing, shifts in terms of hardware platforms that are available means now that a small group of people can really mobilize amazing technological products. Back in the day, we were the first. We were taking the first steps that are now realize as commonplace. In a way, it’s easier now. There’s also a whole ecosystem that’s built up around startup businesses. Exactly the model I talk about, small groups of people using much more scalable, fluid technologies to build targets, products targeting mass market, or high-value opportunities.
As amazing as that experience and opportunity was for Andrew, it was eventually pulled out from under him and still to this day is one of Andrew’s greatest regrets that he didn’t fight harder for it. Because of that, for a brief time, Andrew changed direction, he was really burnt by the experience and decided to dip his toe in medicine, he then corrected course and got a job as a biomedical engineer in a med lab then decided to do a PhD, which was centered around solving some biophysical problems to do with how electric shocks interact with the heart. But through that entire process Andrew stayed interested in renewables and had become an academic at UTS, the University of Technology, Sydney.
It was a bit of a hobby. I started volunteering with an NGO that was working in developing countries helping people get access to cleaner, more affordable electricity options. It was an NGO called Apace. They were based out of the University of Technology in Sydney. At the end, I finished my PhD, got a job as an academic in engineering at the University of Technology, found myself with 2 streams of interest; 1 in biotech, biomedical engineering, the other in terms of renewable energies. Both those areas crossing over in the developing country context.
And this would just be the beginning for Andrew. Andrew went on to work for various organisations all over the world. The Solomon Islands into South Africa, then Papua New Guinea where he spent a year and a half going to every single province working on new electrification strategies, then Botswana where he was the Un’s chief technical advisor on renewables, and after that, still with the UN, Andrew was based in Cambodia and during this time Andrew Worked on a variety of projects.
It was during this time when Andrew would periodically fly in and out of Brisbane that Andrew met his wife.
Andrew officially returned to Australia in 2011 and took a year off after many years working overseas.
But that was quite the end of Andrew’s overseas adventures…
I started consulting back to the UN and the World Bank, as well as a couple of governments. I had some great projects in that time. I helped Uzbekistan with their low emission development strategy. I did the renewable energy policy for Sierra Leone. I did rural electrification strategy for The Philippines. I did a whole bunch of fantastic projects. A lot of travel again. I was away for 1/3 of the year, which didn’t help. In the end, it wasn’t going to work for the family. That’s what tends to happen with me. I get to this point and something jolts me into thinking about what the next step is. [inaudible 00:39:27] ever since Botswana, I’ve had this burning idea for a business. That was really what led to SwitchDin.
Ever since Botswana Andrew had an idea for a business, the business that would eventually become SwitchDin, what exactly was it in Botswana that planted the seed?
In Botswana, the main project there was in setting up this off-grid utility, solar and batteries for low-income households. These are small systems. Really, they’ll just power a few lights and radio. That was enough to really transform people’s lives, reduce their costs on what they’re spending on energy and enable a whole lot of other services. The big barrier was, how do you effectively monitor and support this? What’s the business model that’s going to work? In the end, it came down to us basically putting a little cellular modem chip in the system so that we could remotely monitor and manage that system. That meant that we could make much more use of scarce technical resources. It meant that we could cut down the time it took for people to travel into town to pay their bill. It meant a whole other things which made the whole business model viable. The takeaway for me was that data and control are at the core of how we build effective businesses to deliver distributed energy services.
Data and control are at the core. That what SwitchDin does, integrate multiple systems and monitor and control those systems. So, Andrew has the idea, but he hadn’t done any ‘real’ engineering for a while so Andrew…
I went searching for some co-founders.
I’d been away for 20-odd years. I’d been out of the country for 15 years. A lot of my networks weren’t really up to date anymore. I tried to connect with some of the startup events that were happening around town. I spent a day or 2 a week in Sydney. I rented an office in a co-working space just to meet people and try to build networks. In the end, I met up with 2 guys here in Newcastle. That didn’t really work out. They hung around for 3 months and then decided we hadn’t raised a million bucks. They weren’t going to stick it out.
I was completely deflated.
I put a lot of money on the line to make it happen. I hired them and paid them out of my own money. There was a few times when I nearly walked away. I remember one time, for example, it was almost our last couple of thousand dollars. I decided to go to a trade show and test where we were. I got some really good feedback and a couple of really good leads on customers who definitely understood where we were going. That pushed me along. Just getting that objective reference from the market, that really helped me get going.
There will always be tough times…
You’ve got to work as hard as you ever have to be able to build a business.
But Andrew had seen the difference his technology could make due to his years of experience and having seen the technology he was looking to develop work in other countries and the impact it could make, that really helped keep him going..
Somehow, you’ve got to believe. I guess the core is, because I had seen in other contexts how these technologies can really transform people’s lives. Coming back to Australia and seeing the amazing untapped potential, there just has to be value here. There just had to be value in it. Really, I felt like half the battle was done. I wasn’t really looking to dig up value. It was sitting there staring me in the face. There was a probably to solve.
The first version of SwitchDin was we were looking to be a B to C. We were going to sell to customers this little box which they plugged into their solar and their batteries and their power meter. It gave them good visibility across their system. Then, we had some fancy algorithms which would optimize the way it worked.
At the moment, there’s a problem. If you buy a solar panel and solar inverter, that will come from one manufacturer. These days, back then it didn’t, but these days it will come with a nice web page. You can log on and see what’s going on with your solar. You then go and buy yourself a battery. Chances are it comes from a different manufacturer. They’ll give you a website as well. You’ll have 2 websites to go log on and see how it all comes together. Of course, then, with your power meter, you don’t get any visibility on that. That comes once a quarter in your power bill. You might get a few bar graphs is you’re lucky. Really no other visibility on that data. What we did was we integrated all those things together onto the one platform. Then, we also had the capabilities of controlling the battery. That meant that we could do some smart optimization of the system to help you manage costs. The first version of SwitchDin was about providing that B to C opportunity for customers. Later on, we pivoted away from that model.
We moved away from pitching that directly to end consumers. There is a whole lot of other value that comes from being able to connect lots of small systems. The channel for that value is not the end consumer, the channel is the fleet manager. That might be an electricity retailer or the utility. We took a pivot a couple of years in, or a year and a half in, to really focus, to become a B to B. The focus then became around delivering a platform that would enable utilities or community energy groups, or market grid operators, to manage fleets of these small batteries and solar to improve the way the grid works and to improve their engagement with the end consumer. The end consumer is still the ultimate value recipient here. We provide the tools that enable the fleet manager to give more value for the end consumer.
Really, it’s about channels. It means that we’re much more scalable.
Since sticking my own money in, and then I was able to get some great support from a group of angel investors for my first round of investment.
Yes. We’ve had to raise capital. Bootstrapping would have been a great option. We’ve got to move fast. Things are happening quickly. It’s always that trade-off. Bootstrapping is a great way of growing a business if you’ve got the time.
About half that money came from the Hunter Angels here in Newcastle. The main thing there was that’s just such a supportive group. I’ve also had a lot of mentoring and a lot of guidance from that group. Connecting with those local angel groups has been fantastic.
Glen Turner. He was the chair of Hunter Angels. He was the chair of HMRC here in Newcastle. He’s done lots of great stuff.
Glenn Turner is my name, and I was the Inaugural Chair for the first ideas of Hunter Angels and previous to that I’m involved in many industries, but particularly construction and monitored services.
He and I started having coffees 6 months or more before the raise.
Andrew reached out to me and we had a cup of coffee.
My first question to him was how do I ready this to raise capital here in Australia.
And because Glenn was the Chairperson of Hunter Angels, he was in an excellent position to help Andrew and his Startup.
Hunters Angels was established to add seed funding to emerging and startup businesses in Hunter.
I had my last meeting with Andrew earlier this week in terms of some issues which he’s currently got which pleasingly are all about growth.
He has good opportunities that are global in nature.
And growth is where we are going next in Andrew’s story. SwitchDin is really one of the great successes that have come out of the Hunter, and it’s all up from here, so what’s next for Andrew and his team.
We’ve grown the team now. We’re 17 people now. We’re hiring people to do sales. We’re formalizing our board and governance arrangements to get ready for new types of investor. We’re just about to do a Series A raise. We’ll be looking for corporate investors who bring more than just money. They bring customers. For now, the focus is very much on growt
We grow on the back of batteries. It’s still an early market. We’ve also got to build a very technical product.
What I’ve realized is the company goes through phases of growth and the types of investors you’re looking for, and the types of customers change as well as you grow through those phases.
We’re working with most of the utilities in Australia. For a 3 1/2-year-old startup to be getting those types of customers, it’s pretty cool. We launched in Europe in July with one of our partners. We’ve had tentative steps in North America. We’ll be launching with another 2 partners in April in North America. Australia is the test market for the world for batteries at the moment. A lot of our competitors and our customers are here looking for those early experiences. It’s ripe to take them to the world.
Let’s wrap up the SwitchDin story with some advice from Andrew Mears, the man who was a bit of a geeky kid, started as a fitter and turner at BHP, has a degree in electrical engineering, had a startup in the 90’s that competed against companies like Electrospace, a NASA spinoff, has a PhD, joined the Franklin River Dam protests, worked in the Solomon Islands on a community hydro project, worked in East Africa setting up renewable energy programs, backpacked through every province of Papua New Guinea setting up community-driven energy projects, got malaria, twice. Become the UN’s chief technical advisor on renewables covering southern Africa, Helped Uzbekistan with their low emission development strategy, did the renewable energy policy for Sierra Leone, and the rural electrification strategy for the Philippines. A man who loves dark ale, is a husband and the father of a 12-year-old girl and eventually started the company, SwitchDin. Let’s hear his advice for new founders.
Choose something you’re really passionate about. Just do something. You never know what doors that will open for you. Don’t spend too much time navel gazing. Just get on and do something. You’ll learn. You might fail, but you’ll learn. Then, new doors will open that you never imagined. The thing that’s going to click with you will emerge.
Thank you for listening to the story of SwitchDin and Dr Andrew Mears. I hope you enjoyed it. Everything that was mentioned in the episode today is on the show notes page on welcometodayone.com.
Next time on welcome to day one, Joss Kesby from Diffuse Energy.
I’ve developed a method that can really quickly look at the interaction between the diffuser and the turbine blades. Because they impact on each other and that’s a quite difficult aerodynamic system to model.
Ratings & reviews help to keep us going and they help more people discover our stories. You can rate the show on most podcast platforms by going to ratedayone.com. That’s ratedayone.com to leave a rating on the podcast.
And, Thank you for giving this episode of Welcome to Day One your attention. This episode was created by me, Adam Spencer.
Interviews conducted by me, Adam Spencer.
A big thank you to Andrew Mears from SwitchDin and Glenne Turner from the Hunter Angels for taking the time to be involved.
The script was written by me, Adam Spencer.
Music by Lee Rosevere, full attribution on our website welcometodayone.com
This episode was produced by me, Adam Spencer and edited by Natalie Holland.
Thank you and see you next time!
- Andrew Mears
- Franklin River Protest
- The Hunter Angels
- Newy Startups
- Lunatick Society
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Music by Lee Rosevere.
Title: Let’s Start at the Beginning
Source: Let’s Start at the Beginning
Licence: CC BY 4.0