In 2017, PostFinance employee Matthias Egli approached PFLab with a CO-STAR idea. His suggestion was to simplify the billing of self-produced energy by running the process via a blockchain. Egli is now co-founder of the start-up Ormera (previously “B4U”), which offers exactly this solution: using the Ormera platform, energy companies or administrative bodies can measure self-produced electricity and bill their tenants directly. The process is fully automated and handled via blockchain to enable transparency and traceability. The start-up involves not only PostFinance but also the energy company Energie Wasser Bern (ewb).
Ormera: from open innovation to blockchain start-up
Only when companies open themselves up to the outside world can innovations develop beyond the familiar. This is why PFLab, the PostFinance innovation laboratory, uses open innovation as one of its working methods. And with success – as the example of Ormera shows.
Intangible and far removed from the core business
Ormera exemplifies how PFLab embraces, assesses and advances innovation projects. “At PFLab, we deal with topics that are in some cases very far removed from PostFinance’s core business and which feature a high level of innovation,” explains Mathias Strazza. These topics are not about day-to-day business or enhancements to what is already in place – they have to do with experimenting and innovating on as yet intangible future topics.
Open innovation as a cornerstone of PFLab
Open innovation is a key approach in our process – opening up our innovation processes to the outside through collaboration with colleges and universities, start-ups, networks and companies. “If we want new ideas to flow into the company, we have to leave the door ajar – for example, by holding talks on our projects or collaborating with other companies,” says Mathias Strazza.
On board right from the start
For Ormera, PFLab was keen to get ewb on board right from the outset. Cooperation between the two came naturally: Matthias Egli already knew the Berne-based energy supplier from earlier projects, while ewb was able to bring valuable expertise from the energy sector and also showed interest in the project as a potential operator. After a short time, Ormera’s core team brought the CEOs of the two companies together. Later, another open innovation partner, ABB, was added. In order to bring the joint idea of secure and non-manipulable data into blockchain, ABB further developed the meter technology in its research laboratory.
Failure or success
But not all projects make it as far as Ormera. Innovation projects require the relevant prerequisites and building blocks for them to come about in the first place. Whether it’s the culture of innovation that enables employees like Matthias Egli to experiment with new topics for the company beyond their own roles, or whether it’s signals, trends and shifts that create the conditions for something new. One of these building blocks is the innovation process in PFLab, which is geared towards future topics and allows for fast experiments. To put it simply, the process involves three phases, which, depending on the innovation project, also overlap, iterate continuously and usually do not run linearly:
Identifying trends and signals as well as market requirements in various search fields in good time – that is the big task in the exploration phase. In the case of Ormera, the blockchain technology and the “Internet of things” (IoT) were picked up and linked with the topics of renewable energies / energy law. Due to the new Energy Act that came into force in 2018, homeowners with photovoltaic systems are now allowed to use the electricity they produce themselves directly and charge their tenants for it. This raised the question of how to process billing efficiently.
Experimentation is about consolidating and testing solutions and assumptions (hypotheses). In the case of Ormera, this was a technical learning process that resulted in a radical digital solution: automated billing from meter (smart meter) to account via a blockchain.
During the pilot phase, the solution is tested gradually on the market. Ormera used a minimum viable product (MVP) in properties in Bern and Huttwil. This was progressively optimized based on feedback from the market and developed into a marketable product.
Ormera has successfully completed all phases of the innovation process. In just two years, an idea was turned into a start-up that is now blazing a trail on the market.
This is only the beginning
In Ormera, PFLab has found what it was looking for: a concrete application case for blockchain technology that solves a specific customer need and thus represents a business model in the energy market. At the same time, blockchain infrastructure jointly operated by Swiss Post Group and Swisscom is being used. But the case of energy is just the beginning. “With billing via blockchain, we are acquiring a great deal of expertise. In the future, we will be able to use this knowledge elsewhere and in other markets,” says Mathias Strazza.