EPIcenter Developing Energy Incubator, Think Tank in San Antonio

San Antonio—[Corrected 2:28 p.m. See below.] On the south end of downtown San Antonio, in a 108-year-old power plant that was decommissioned in 2003, a nonprofit has plans to establish a think tank, incubator, and exhibit space that will advocate for innovation in clean energy.

Called EPIcenter, the organization is redeveloping the power plant into a space to host conferences, develop new companies and new ideals, and for research and development work, among other uses. It was conceived in 2015 by a group of four energy-related organizations, including CPS Energy, a gas and electricity provider that is owned by the City of San Antonio.

The intent has been to create a space that can gain international recognition for its work on developing new ideas for energy—not just developing ways to better use renewable energy, but also to improve the way we consume traditional energy supplies, like oil and gas, says CEO Kimberly Britton. In additional to CPS Energy, the three other founding sponsors may be able to help the non-profit earn some of that international acclaim, Britton says. They include San Antonio-based solar company OCI Solar; Zug, Switzerland-based Landis+Gyr, which makes technology for measuring utility usage; and San Jose, CA-based Silver Spring Networks, a utility-focused Internet of things (IOT) company. Liberty Lake, WA-based tech company Itron said this week it would buy Silver Spring Networks for about $830 million. [Corrected Britton’s title and spelling of company names.]

In addition to financial support, the four sponsoring companies have already contributed millions of dollars of equipment and other physical donations (including the old power plant), and plan to provide more, including possibly staff expertise and mentorship, she says.

“I’m looking to build partnerships that are not only local or domestic, but to look at national and international relationships with entities working in the energy space,” Britton says. “The technology that’s taking place doesn’t have to just be siloed here in our city.”

The group estimates the overall project, including redeveloping the old space and getting it running, will cost approximately $74.5 million. EPIcenter has already raised $21.2 million from the four founding sponsors, including $11.2 million in in-kind donations ($6.2 million of that was the estimated value of the power plant, donated from CPS Energy) and the remainder was $10 million in cash from the three other corporate sponsors, Britton says. The organization is working on raising about $53 million more to complete the project. That additional money will help pay for the renovation of the 80,000-square-foot power plant, which will also have a fabrication lab. EPIcenter estimates it will take about two years to complete.

As it waits for its home base to be ready, EPIcenter has started some of its projects already. The organization held a conference last spring on how IOT technology impacts energy innovation, and it is planning another similar conference next May.

“The smart grid is not possible without IOT,” Britton says. “It’s the idea of being able to connect your grid and control it in a way that we’ve never seen before.”

The group is also readying itself to start an incubator that it hopes can help budding entrepreneurs develop business ideas related to energy, though it hasn’t selected any companies yet, Britton says. EPIcenter plans to work closely with local groups, such as co-working space Geekdom, to provide the companies it incubates with additional outside resources they might need, such as mentorship and extra workspace, she says.

One route EPIcenter might take to find energy-related startups for an incubator is through an annual pitch competition CPS hosts, Britton says. The group is also considering someday adding an accelerator program for later-stage startups, she says.

“We’re willing to work with folks at an earlier stage in part because we have this amazing partnership with our founding sponsors, who are interested in a front row seat to their technologies,” Britton says.

Some of the other activities that will start when the building is ready, such as possibly offering rental space and licensing work from its think tank, will help the organization earn money, she says.

EPIcenter aims to become as prominent as other large cleantech programs, such as Greentown Labs in Boston, she says.

“They’re kind of what you want to be when you grow up,” Britton says.

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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