An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Stanford University (Dr. Stephen Comello) and the University of St. Gallen (Prof. Ann-Kristin Zobel, Lukas Falcke) is currently studying the Free Electrons program as an example of an open innovation ecosystem.


Research Description

The electricity sector is undergoing structural changes due to a confluence of forces that can conveniently be summarized as the “Four D’s”: decarbonization, digitalization, decentralization, and deregulation.

While the energy transition holds the promise of new technologies, business models and competitive landscapes, the journey for any company toward these endpoints is highly uncertain. This is true for both incumbents and new entrants.

Incumbents may have assets, experience, and capital, however the “business as usual” deployment of these capabilities may not be enough to achieve decarbonization at the necessary scale and speed, making it difficult for these firms to thrive in the future. New entrants may have agility, ideas and cutting-edge knowledge, but not necessarily the experience and resources to build, test and deploy their solutions economically or at scale.

In response, incumbents and new entrants may overcome their strategic constraints and complement each other in an open innovation environment in order to co-develop mutually beneficial solutions, accelerating both competitive advantage and achievement of ‘net-zero’ ambitions.

The Free Electrons program is a manifestation of such an open innovation environment and provides a rich case study on how and why (i) complementary actors can apply ecosystems strategies to realize a ‘net-zero’ energy future (ii) heterogeneous actors organize themselves and form meaningful collaborations in an open innovation environment; (iii) new capabilities (business models, technologies, markets) are enabled or hindered by firm organizational structures; (iv) individuals – acting as “corporate boundary spanners” – navigate an open innovation setting; and (v) virtual formats allow the building of personal relationships, trust and a shared identity in multi-party collaborations.

The ongoing research will seek to answer these questions as part of a longitudinal examination of the program and publish findings in both academic and practitioner outlets. The envisioned practical impact of this work is to better inform the design and performance of innovation and deployment efforts in the energy sector.

Dr. Stephen D. Comello

Stephen is the director of the Energy Business Innovations focus area at Stanford Graduate School of Business, techno-economic and policy lead for the Bits & Watts and the StorageX Initiative within Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, and a senior fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. His work examines the organization of innovation and how technology and policy coevolve to influence the economic attractiveness of advanced energy and environmental solutions. He advises academic, industry, government, and non-governmental organizations on strategies for clean technology deployment. Within his current portfolio, he explores policy, solution diffusion, and business model innovation regarding carbon emission reduction and removal technologies in the energy and industrial sectors. Stephen holds a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering and a PhD Minor in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford University.

View Dr. Stephen D. Comello’s profile here.

Dr. Ann-Kristin Zobel

Ann-Kristin is Associate Professor of Management at the Institute for Strategy and Management at the University of St. Gallen. Her research focuses on how firms transform from a traditionally closed innovation model to a model of open innovation and how firms can apply open innovation to accelerate their ‘net-zero’ strategies. This new model of open innovation is particularly relevant in the energy sector, in which innovation is becoming increasingly distributed and requires a collective effort from different actors in an innovation ecosystem. She received her Ph.D. from the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University. Prior to her appointment at the University of St.Gallen, she held a postdoctoral position at the Institute for Business Innovation within the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior researcher position at the Group for Sustainability and Technology at the Department of Management, Technology, and Economics at ETH Zurich.

View Prof. Ann-Kristin Zobel’s profile here.

Lukas Falcke

Lukas Falcke is a Research Associate and doctoral student at the Institute for Strategy and Management at the University of St. Gallen. In his research, he combines insights from information systems management (e.g., digital technology architectures, digital platforms) and collaborative innovation (e.g., innovation ecosystems, platform ecosystems) to investigate how firms co-create digital and low-carbon innovations. Prior to his work at the University of St. Gallen, he has been a research assistant at the group for sustainability and technology at ETH Zurich, a visiting researcher at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and has gained practical experience in digital strategy as a consultant and data scientist at McKinsey and UBS Switzerland.

View Lukas Falcke’s profile here.