Stanford University and ETH Zurich are currently studying the Free Electrons program as an example of an open innovation ecosystem.

One of the key goals of the Free Electrons program is to facilitate collaborations across startups and utilities to accelerate value discovery and deployment of new offerings. The core of any endeavour is people.


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 enable 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.

The Free Electrons program is a manifestation of such an open innovation environment and provides a rich case study on how and why (i) heterogeneous actors organize themselves and form meaningful collaborations in an open innovation environment; (ii) new capabilities (business models, technologies, markets) are enabled or hindered by firm organizational structures and (iii) individuals – acting as “corporate boundary spanners” – navigate an open innovation setting.

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 Sustainable Energy Initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Business, managing director (interim) at the Bits & Watts Initiative within Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, and a 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 solutions. He advises academic, industry, government and non-governmental organizations on strategies for clean technology deployment. Within his current portfolio, he explores policy and business model innovation within the electricity sector, with one set of projects focusing on how digital platform technology diffusion intersects with structural changes in the industry. 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 a senior researcher in the Group for Sustainability and Technology at the Department of Management, Technology, and Economics at ETH Zurich. Her research focuses on how firms transform from a traditionally closed innovation model to a model of open innovation that increasingly integrates external sources of innovation and paths to markets. 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. Ann-Kristin received her PhD from the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University. Prior to joining ETH, Ann-Kristin worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Business Innovation within the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

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