VITO, the Flemish Technological Research Institute, not only creates and launches its own spin-offs, it also likes to give other start-ups working on sustainability a boost. That is why this year it decided to launch the VITO4STARTERS competition, the finals of which took place last summer at the Love Tomorrow Sustainability Conference. The six finalists, all Flemish start-ups, were invited to pitch their innovative ideas at this competition. The winner was rewarded with support from VITO to the tune of 20,000 euros.

MyGrid, a Leuven start-up, has designed a mobile home battery, a plug-and-play battery pack that can be charged in a standard wall socket and used in a wide range of residential electrical applications. The idea behind this initiative is to give people more control over their energy consumption, and allow them to participate in the energy transition in an accessible way.

On 28 July, the Tomorrowland festival was also the setting for a true sustainability event, the Love Tomorrow Conference. Visitors came to listen to headliner Yuval Noah Harari, but were also introduced to the innovative force of the Flemish start-up community. After all, the six finalists of the VITO4STARTERS competition presented their ideas of how they want to use their businesses to make the world more sustainable.

The founders of MyGrid proved the most captivating to the jury, which consisted of experts from independent research centre for micro- and nano-electronics imec, the KBC bank and VITO. They received a check worth 20,000 euros from Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon. This was not just any cash, however, but support from VITO for their fledgling businesses. This support can be in the shape of technological advice, assistance in the realisation of a proof-of-concept but also use of lab or test infrastructure and access to the VITO network and its channels, useful, for example, for exposure and promotion. In addition, MyGrid is given the opportunity to pitch for further support from the Clean Vision Invest fund, through which VITO strengthens the spin-off and start-up community in Flanders.

MyGrid's sustainable nature makes itself felt in the field of energy. The start-up has designed and developed a mobile home battery that is very accessible and easy to use (plug & play). The battery is intended for people who seek to actively take part in the energy transition and also want more ownership of their own energy management. This is certainly not available to everyone today. After all, not everyone has solar panels on the roof - never mind a roof - and permanently installed home batteries are very expensive. With its battery, MyGrid also contributes to buffering the energy grid.

According to the VITO4STARTERS jury, of all the finalists, MyGrid proved to be the most comprehensive in what they have to offer. "A prototype has been developed, a solid team has been set up, a road-to-market has been mapped out and attention has also been paid to the look-and-feel of their product," according to the jury report.

That requires a word of explanation. We discuss MyGrid's further ambitions with founders Jan Wellens and Kristof Geerts, CEO and CTO, respectively.

Who exactly stands to benefit from your mobile battery ModuleOne?

Jan Wellens: "Our ideal target group includes people who want to actively and directly participate in the energy transition, but who currently don't really have the opportunity to do so. This is where we come in. With a mobile battery that can simply be charged via a standard wall socket, you get more control over your power consumption. This can be done in several ways. For example, if you have a variable rate, you can charge the battery when the price of electricity is low, and use up the electricity when the price is high. Alternatively, for example, you can choose to use up your own electricity at times when there is an energy shortage and CO2-intensive gas power plants are deployed. So in this way, you can also reduce your emissions. In addition, it will also be possible to level off the peaks of your energy consumption and thus minimise the dreaded capacity tax that will be introduced in early 2023. The desired usage mode is at your fingertips thanks to our app.

So the ModuleOne is a high-performance power bank that allows you to choose what you do with your (own) energy. This can range from lowering your electricity bill to exchanging your energy with friends, family or colleagues. The possibilities are, in fact, endless. What's also convenient is that the ModuleOne is portable, so you no longer need extension leads for when you want to use your power outdoors, for example."

You make the comparison with a power bank, but your battery pack is also a home battery. Where do you situate the ModuleOne? 

Kristof Geerts: "In between the two. You use a power bank to charge your smartphone or other small electronic devices. With our ModuleOne, you can power any home application: lamps, electrics small and large, devices for in the garden ... A plus compared to a home battery is the fact that it is plug & play. You don't need a professional installer and it is very user-friendly. What's more, the price of the ModuleOne (1690 euros) will be low compared to home batteries, which are still very expensive today."

Wellens: "Besides being useful, our mobile battery is also very nice-to-have thanks to its stylish design. So we're also targeting the gadget market. The ModuleOne only weighs twelve kilos and is only as big as a piece of carry-on luggage for the plane. So it could well be an original and useful Christmas present."

When will the battery pack hit the market? Will it be under the Christmas tree this year? 

Wellens: "That's a bit too early, sadly. We're currently in the process of selecting the best model from a series of prototypes. Once that's done, we can gradually start thinking about series production. We are also running a pre-sales campaign, which has resulted in several dozen orders already. This is mainly thanks to our participation in VITO4STARTERS. Delivery is scheduled for December 2023. So Christmas next year ought to be feasible."

You could probably do with some additional funding. Will you be able to source it ok?

"Early next year, we're planning a crowdfunding campaign through the Kickstarter platform. That will be very exciting, because then we will see whether there's sufficient interest from investors in our product and business model. We're now running on a start-up grant from VLAIO (Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship), but that's not enough to bridge the dreaded valley of death. That's why we're now simultaneously exploring other funding options, such as investors, loans and other subsidy mechanisms."

In the coming months, you'll be receiving targeted support from VITO. What do you hope to take away from this or improve on? 

Geerts: "There are a lot of areas where the know-how and experience of VITO's experts can help us move forward. Things like product testing and certification, including in the area of safety. And of course, through EnergyVille, VITO has a lot of expertise when it comes to batteries. Eventually, we may want to switch to cells produced in Europe, as the current ones come from China. VITO can help with that too."

You're both electronics engineers, graduated from KU Leuven. Is that where you met?

Wellens: "Yes. Kristof and I studied together. At the university, we collaborated on the solar cars that won several races. After we graduated, we both ended up in big companies. But I was very quickly bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and I have always wanted to work around sustainability. By the way, we've noticed that this is the case with many recent graduates. To expand our team - there are five of us now - we quickly found the right people to join us. Surely you don't expect that in these times of labour shortages."

How did you experience VITO4STARTERS?

Wellens: "It was a great experience. When we arrived at the Love Tomorrow Conference, we were first a bit overwhelmed by the sheer splendour of the festival grounds. But during our pitch, everything went smoothly. It was also exciting to receive the award on the big stage, in front of a huge crowd of people."

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