Interview with Uche Isiugo, Founder & CEO of Infranergy
What does it take to found & lead a clean energy investment firm & tech company simultaneously? In this Green Light episode, I will speak with Uche C. Isiugo, CEO & Founder of Infranergy & Managing Partner at Emerging Infrastructure Capital about this as well as how his upbringing and living on two continents influenced his entrepreneurial path in energy. We will also speak about his prior experience outside the industry at Boeing, Chevron, & Citi, and how he transitioned within cleantech at NextEra Energy Resources & Key Capture Energy before launching his own companies.
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Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Uche Isiugo, welcome Uche.
Uche: Thank you! Thanks for having me.
Catherine: He is joining us from sunny Florida. And so I wanted to first congratulate you on being named to Forbes next 1000 honorees list. For those of you who do not know, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about your current roles?
Uche: Thanks, Catherine for having me. So I’m an entrepreneur, as . So my firm is Infranergy. We are focused on providing clean energy solutions to businesses and communities. So as part of that we also offer software which we’re building to enhance people’s lives really to improve their customer satisfaction in energy solutions. What that looks like is essentially we help people optimize their energy savings and their power bill, also help them to actually earn income with their battery storage in their houses, they use that to trade their excess energy capacity. So essentially an energy trader in your pocket. Before I got here, I used to work for the other energy companies. The wildling NextEra, Key Capture Energy, proud of that. I had a career in energy and finance the sort of benefit of doing what I do now is I’m able to integrate finance with the energy with the engineering elements and make impactful commitments to different communities across the world really. So I’m developing projects in California to development projects in Africa, which has allowed me to do that.
Catherine: I see your LinkedIn says you’re a Managing Partner at Emerging Infrastructure Capital as well?
Uche: Yes. So Emerging Infrastructure Capital was the vehicle we launched to start driving investments and financial advisory within the clean energy space, and we then fintechs was an intersection of that. So Infranergy was actually birthed out of that because Emerging Infrastructure Capital, venture studio, the purpose is to build companies of the future. And so the first company we rolled out was Infranergyl. We have since made other investments in other companies that are related that are similar in nature. So a couple companies in Africa that focus on the energy space, we invested in them, and then we have recently rolled out software for climate tech. So Emerging Infrastructure is our vehicle for those investments and also for building these companies.
Catherine: Great. And I know that your educational background is mostly sort of finance and economics. Did you always know that you wanted to apply this in the energy field? And like how did you sort of make your way into the clean energy industry?
Uche: So I grew up in an oil rich country. Nigeria is an energy rich country, but energy poverty. When you looked at the society there’s a very broad strata of people, from extremely rich to extremely poor. Which is obviously a negative thing because you have all this wealth but you have all this poverty. Growing up up there made me realize that energy is very, very, very important. My interest was to be in energy field, one of my first internships with Chevron, flew out to California from Philly when I was in college. I worked there for the summer. My project was to do some competitive intelligence on Tesla and some other emerging alternative alternative fuels. This was back in ‘06. I was one of the first guys to really delve into Tesla and the one back in ‘06 and I kind caught the bug there. Make an impact through energy. I worked at Boeing. The first part of my career, I went to grad school, I worked on a PhD while doing that, I figured I could, at that point, pivot back into energy. So I did some work in investment banking, which allowed me to do some work in energy, manage deals and privatization within the energy sector. And based on that, I decided to go work for NextEra Energy at the time. I had other opportunities, other offers, but I thought this was the best one just to be in that clean energy space and be a leader within that space and manage assets. Which was a great opportunity to learn. Which I was privileged to do. So yeah, that was my journey.
Catherine: You have certainly covered the United States of America. I mean, Temple, which is Philly. Seattle MBA. New Orleans PhD. Now your in Florida. You have worked your way around the US. I wanted to talk a bit about entrepreneurship, something near and dear to my heart, obviously. Why did you decide to go from working as employee, at like NextEra Capture, to deciding to found your own energy company?Uche: So it’s always a passion of mine. I grew up in a community of academics and a great place to grow up in a warm community, very supportive, very smart people, which you kind of thought it was normal to grow up there because that’s kind of all I knew, right. So for me, I love the knowledge but I also love the practical aspect of applying that knowledge and really impacting lives at scale. Not just writing papers about ideas, but actually putting those ideas into practice. Well as a young kid, I read very widely about world business, finance, politics, geopolitics as well. I wanted to be out there making those decisions that impact people’s lives directly. So I wanted to be able to be an entrepreneur, and just having this love where economics and finance was a way I thought would be a path towards that. And energy just intersected with that. I grew up around a lot of, my parents friends were professors and also in economics and finance and just having that love for just commerce right? Made me want to step into this. So I know growing up where I grew up, my parents aren’t our birth sort of bearish on entrepreneurship since their professors, right so they always encouraged me to do that only when I had enough experience and I actually got off the first time I actually ventured out to be an entrepreneur, a full time basis was back in like 2011. And what some of the harsh realities of that, think about that I needed to have a very solid resume. That way, when I eventually come back to being an entrepreneur, I could open doors seamlessly, where they look at you and figure out that you walk the talk, you talk the talk. Yeah, that was why that timing makes sense for me.
Catherine: But I always say to people, are you nervous to start your own company? Like what if it doesn’t work out sort of more risk averse people? I just think people could just work out all the work. For another recruitment company, where they take 50% 70% 75% of your money, you know what I mean? Like, the job market is very hot in our space and worst case scenario, you can always go back but the failure necessarily is what drives you as an entrepreneur. I don’t think that you can look at it negatively. I don’t ever think about failure, I’m always thinking about it like it’s not an option. So you got to focus on the positive.
Uche: Yeah, we’re in a very large industry, there have been some big developments. The industry is over $2 trillion globally. In the US, we’ve passed BIL, which is about partisan infrastructure legislation. Which is the Inflation Reduction Act. So I think that the world and the US recognizes that climate change is real. And transition is very much required to really help reduce the temperatures globally. To adhere to the Paris commitments. So we’re in the center of a big opportunity. Personally, I’m very privileged to have been able to work in the companies I work for, soaking up all that knowledge and the projects and being able to contribute my way to the efforts. So of course, entrepreneurship is not a bed of roses, right? We work very long hours, to say the least. But it comes with its own benefits as well. This is well the upside, sort of downside. We take it all.
Catherine: Did you have any mentors that inspired you to focus on clean energy or starting your own business?
Uche: So, I have mentors from a professional perspective. I didn’t have so many mentors that I should have more professionally. Personally, I have people I looked up to, who I grew up around and who are professionals, and are more so informal than formal. And I think that it’s great to have a more formalized mentor mentee relationship, which I didn’t take advantage of as much as I should have in my career, but whenever I did, took advantage of it. I found them very beneficial. Some of the mentors I had, for example, when I was at Boeing, one of our leaders, the director was my mentor. He encouraged me to take on a leadership role, which was to drive what they called at the time lean plus, which was like, cost savings, driving improvements and processes. I was pretty young kid in my early 20s, leading a team of nine people who were a lot older than me on projects, and we actually won the Lean Plus Award within finance. Over 30 different teams and we won that. That gave me a lot of exposure and a lot of confidence as well as myself, to do other things like that. And that was based on the director giving me that advice to do that, and it worked out even though at first I was so scared of taking that big opportunity, but it worked out and I learned a lot. I think it’s great to get mentors and actually now I’m in a couple of different organizations like you may know I’m in the CBN and also Clean Tech Leaders Roundtable, which I mentor part of that as well. We kind of peer mentor each other and learn from each other best practices and lessons learned. I call it a virtuous cycle of learning. I’m keen on learning all the time. So doing that more.
Catherine: Just a quick shout out to the Clean Tech Leaders Roundtable because it’s obviously that’s how we got introduced through Andrea Lueke. So I’m a big fan of CTLR and I chill out a lot with them in DC. Tell me a little bit about Solbox AI.
Uche: Solbox AI is a platform that we’re developing and it has a suite of different tools. We have so it’s a virtual power plant platform. A platform that aggregates and connects different solar powered batteries, heat pumps, other distributed energy resources that you have in your home, your business and monitors them so you can monitor them remotely and have we can from our back end. We use artificial intelligence to monitor your usage benefit that helps reduce your power bill so in monetary and demand, we also monitor your supply of energy. So part of benefiting you at home are the power bills. We also benefit the grid because we can reduce demand on the grid stressed out the most and that helps prevent blackouts. We look at the US, which has more blackouts than any other developed country. We have over 200% more blackouts than we did back in 1984. Which was getting better, not worse, now we’re getting a lot worse. And so the software is meant to help correct that and how do we correct that by aggregating 1000s of these devices together to make a major impact on the grid and help the grid become more stable. So one of the parts I’m proud about is, of course tools as part of Soul Blocks, the backend platform is a power trading pricing tool which helps you stakeholders in the energy market price more accurately and make decisions on how much energy they’re buying and selling them, and at what time so that looking at historical prices and find out what, like a future sort of Pandora’s box of what energy allegations are from a pricing perspective. This helps utilities, retail electricity providers, their decisions on buying and selling energy output, so that’s Solbox.
Another project I’m proud of, one of the projects we’ve done, at the time the largest battery project in Nigeria, the largest private sector battery in Nigeria, we developed, financed, deployed, and still operate that until this day, and we launched that about a year and a half ago. Two years ago. I have the benefit of working in battery storage and my division in that area which is called the Business Management Division when I was out there. We manage all the projects we have profit and loss responsibility with decisions for all the assets we own those decisions. So I was responsible for all the battery storage projects in the US. All the utility scale projects and we had the largest portfolio of battery storage projects. NextEra being the largest energy company in the renewable energy space so I was leading and responsible for the largest portfolio of batteries in the world. So when you look at it that looks like a lot but think of it that way. But that was the true impact of the portfolio of what I was doing. That I’m proud of because I was able to create processes for nascent technology was new at NextEra. It was new everywhere in the world. Having managed batteries since 2016. I was able to optimize from the power market and aspect we had one of the first batteries ever to be a hedged asset. Which is a financial derivative, energy arbitrage, launching projects, part of our revenue stream was energy arbitrage projects to do that. And then other use cases frequency regulation and capacity. So having to do with multiple products for battery storage, and multiple structures with PPAs which batteries are energy storage agreements and just merchant trading of an output was very instrumental in helping me learn a lot and become able to do what I do as an entrepreneur today with battery storage and solar.
Catherine: Amazing. My last question I have for you is around, I know that Emerging Infrastructure Capital is focused on unlocking value for disadvantaged global populations. Talk a little bit more about that specifically.
Uche: Absolutely. So when we started the Emerging Infrastructure Capital, the focus was on looking at some of the underserved populations, right. So from minorities to businesses in the middle market, helping them expand, helping them grow with pools. So we were offering advisory, so the first project we did was we offered advisory to solar developers who needed to raise capital. We did that and then we started investing directly and we then developed Infranergy as an offshoot of that. So right now we are still managing some of those investments and making partnerships that would help scale renewables and help scale financial technology which really is improving penetration of financial services for the unbanked from FinTech platforms to cleantech. So that’s our focus. One of the things we’re looking at that we’re very passionate about is accelerators and working with partners to launch those kind of programs that help entrepreneurs who don’t have a lot of experience in cleantech and fintech. So bring up the tools that they need, expand and grow the resources, knowledge in our relationships knowledge is power, but folks don’t really know don’t have the information that they need to connect the dots and help them out based on the resources that we use in the past successful based on our lessons learned, based on best practices as well.
Catherine: Well, thank you so much for sharing your background with us and what you’re up to and it’s very exciting and I wish you all the best.
Uche: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.