Discussing the ABB + Solar Impulse Partnership with ABB SVP Maxine Ghavi
Earlier this quarter, ABB announced their technology alliance partnership with Solar Impulse. We spoke with Maxine Ghavi—SVP & Head of the Solar Industry Segment Initiative at ABB—about the nature of this corporate partnership and what she sees lying ahead for the team.
Hello Maxine… Can you tell us the genesis story for the ABB + Solar Impulse partnership?
If you look at ABB and Solar Impulse we share a common ideal, and that is to address the growing energy demand with increased efficiency and minimal environmental impact. Both organizations value innovation, value pushing the envelope on the limits of technology. We also share the cultural characteristics of being Swiss-based companies. We both have novel approaches to solving problems in a responsible way, and endeavor to make significant contributions to the areas of renewable energy and storage. All of these together – our shared visions for technology, innovation and sustainable energy – they set a solid foundation for collaboration and to take these common areas of expertise to the next level.
Yes, that’s quite interesting. How do you fit into this story? Can you share a bit on your background, and what you’re doing at ABB? Also, what do you like most about what you do?
Well, let me give you an idea of what ABB does in solar first. ABB provides the most comprehensive value prop in the solar industry. We have a complete, comprehensive portfolio of products and systems along the entire solar value chain excluding solar modules. This includes inverters, low voltage products, grid connectivity, and grid stabilization and integration products. And along with that comes service, operations, maintenance, etc. We provide everything that connects to the module to enable generation, transmission, and distribution of solar power. And then we’re able to take that power and integrate it into the grid for use.
As for me, I’m responsible for the ABB global solar initiative, and in that capacity I work across all of our applicable business units to define our global strategy, as well as developing and capturing growth opportunities in the solar sector. I’ve been working for quite some time – I have 25+ years of experience in marketing, sales, business development, product management, etc. across multiple industries such as semi-conductors, electro-optics, software, and solar.
And as for what I like most about what I do, solar is my passion. I think it’s important to work for a company that has made such a strong commitment to this sector, a commitment reflected by the $1 billion acquisition ABB made last year of PowerOne, the number 2 solar inverter manufacturer in the world. This really put a stake in the ground for us in the solar market. Also the ability to work with the entire organization at ABB and leveraging our know-how in a multitude of areas which have touch points with solar such as smart grids, EV Charging and building automation. This allows us to continue to expand our solar value prop in a unique and powerful way. So it’s a cool place to work when you’re able to bring all of these together.
When you talk about bringing it all together, can you share some detail on how the Solar Impulse partnership fits with ABB’s strategy?
As I said, both of us are very focused on renewables. Both of us have a certain approach in pushing the envelope for innovation and both of us have focused on fields such as renewables, efficient conversion of renewable energy, and energy storage. Those are key areas that ABB and Solar Impulse have in common. So now we have these teams together going through and looking at the different technologies and the expertise that we each bring to the table, and trying to take it to the next level and see what sort of solutions we can offer if we leverage and benefit from each other’s expertise. Having that diverse background is really amazing when bringing teams together and solving problems.
Got it. And other than a round-the-world flight, what else characterizes success in the ABB/Solar Impulse partnership?
You’re absolutely right – the round the world flight success is very important. I think 2 more messages are also key. First of all, through this flight and through us working together, we’ll be able to state the case for renewables. This is the message that Solar Impulse will take around the world and really show that economic growth, progress, and quality of life can be improved and also be decoupled from environmental impact. Secondly, and this goes back to your previous question, the other area that we consider characterizing success is the outcome of the technology discussion we’ve already started, and the collaborative innovation that will stem from that. So overall those are the three key messages.
OK, so when you think about the partnership you have with Solar Impulse, are other partnerships like this a key part in ABB’s efforts to continue innovation?
Absolutely. If you know ABB, you know that one of our key foundations is innovation, and that hasn’t changed throughout the history of the company. If you look at how much we spent in R&D last year, around 1.5 billion US dollars, you’ll see innovation ranks pretty high in what we do. And we believe that innovation internally is important, but also partnerships such as this where we can actually work through some of the challenges with external teams to bring solutions to bear. But in addition to partnerships with organizations like Solar Impulse, we partner with top universities in the world and continue to leverage that as well. As I mentioned before, it’s partnerships that bring the diversity in thinking of how to solve problems that is very interesting.
We’re seeing a lot of that, too. We’re seeing a lot of partnerships across the corporate and start-up space, so this is a topic of a lot of interest with us. Can you share some of the characteristics ABB looks for when striking deals?
Having a shared, common vision, the proximity of challenges our businesses address, and the applicability to our core technology are all quite important. The partnership also has to be in a market that we want to participate in… where we’re looking at solving similar challenges. We also look at partners who are thinking outside of the box as this is the only way that ABB and our partner will be able to push the boundaries of innovation.
I must say, pushing the boundaries of technology and innovation sounds like quite a bit of fun.
It certainly is. And as a side comment, I’ll mention a small pitch for ABB and innovation. If you look at ABB’s history, breakthrough innovation has been part of our heritage. It’s really about looking at technology that you can transform into a tangible solution. For example, the high voltage DC circuit breaker (HVDC) is an incredible innovation, solving a 100-year-old electrical engineering puzzle and paving the way for a more efficient and reliable electricity supply system. It combines very fast mechanics with power electronics, and will be capable of ‘interrupting’ power flows equivalent to the output of a large power station within 5 milliseconds- that is thirty times faster than the blink of a human eye. In fact, in 2013 this made MIT’s list of top 10 technologies. So you’re absolutely right, innovation is a key area that we focus on and it’s a lot of fun working for a company where this is part of the culture.
Back on partnerships, can you describe some of the challenges that you face when working through collaborating externally?
Sure. Do you share a common vision? That really needs to be there. The fact that our CEO, Ulrich Spiesshofer, shares a common vision with Bertrand Piccard is key. They want to solve the same problems, the same challenges of the future of energy and decoupling economic growth from environmental impact.
Secondly, it’s about culture. There has to be similar characteristics of the cultures. And because of the commonalities in these areas, we feel confident about the partnership we have with Solar Impulse and that it will be a success, for sure.
If you can take out your crystal ball, is there anything in the next 6-12 months that you’re very excited about?
So to take my crystal ball out, I continue to be very optimistic about the solar market. It will continue to contribute to the global energy mix in the years to come. Although volatile and uncertain in the short term, it’s a solid market to be in for the long term. And it’s exciting to be with a company like ABB and look at our value proposition and see what we’re able to offer and how we can participate in this growing industry with the ability to expand beyond mainstream solar due to the touch points I described earlier. As it relates to the partnership with Solar Impulse, what our two teams will discover, in terms of ideas on innovation, we’re all anxiously awaiting to hear and see that. Because I know our team, and having met Bertrand’s, it’s exciting to see what they will come up with after having gone through their exploratory stage. And again, beyond that, looking at how to take these innovative ideas and technologies and turn them into tangible solutions for a better world… that’s really fantastic. And I say this to you now because I say this a lot: ABB’s vision is power and productivity for a better world, and solar fits very well into this vision.
Thanks for chatting, Maxine. Any last words?
No, I think you got it. Again, it’s incredible to work with an organization that shares the same vision and is very, very passionate about the same things as you. Solar Impulse shows what can be done when you have a passion and venture beyond what’s possible, and it’s amazing to be part of that journey.
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