Bit Stew, the startup that has landed some big North American utility customers for its data integration and operations software platform, has raised a $17.2 million B round of funding to expand into Europe, branch into the oil and gas industry, and add distributed energy resources to the grid-edge systems it tracks.
The Vancouver, Canada-based startup also added a potentially important new strategic investor: GE Ventures, which led Tuesday's round. The new funding brings Bit Stew’s total money raised to $26 million, including a $5.3 million Series A round in late 2013 and a $3.5 million credit facility from Silicon Valley Bank in May 2014.
New investors GE Ventures and BDC Capital were joined by previous investors Yaletown Venture Partners and Cisco. Cisco incorporated Bit Stew’s software into its connected grid routers last year, and Franco Castaldini, Bit Stew’s vice president of marketing and former head of software solutions marketing for GE Energy Management, cited that integration as an example of how GE might put the startup’s technology to use in its Industrial Internet ambitions.
In the industrial internet of things, “there are two significant technology players in that market -- GE and Cisco,” he said. “The investment from GE is a very strategic one for Bit Stew, as we look beyond the markets we work in today and begin to extend our scope to markets that GE serves.”
The first move Bit Stew is making is into the oil and gas industry, starting with an expansion of its natural-gas-pipeline sensor data collection work with existing utility partners, he said. “This is around leak detection and triaging the ‘alarm fatigue’ that utilities are experiencing,” Castaldini said. “Alarms are coming from multiple systems, and there’s no way to prioritize them.”
Being able to identify whether alarms are being triggered by a communications system breakdown, a sensor that’s run out of battery power, or a true equipment failure is something Bit Stew has practiced with its smart meter customers, and the company “feels it’s within our wheelhouse to do that with our technology” for pipeline companies as well.
Bit Stew is also planning a geographic expansion into Europe, with specific use cases it's targeting for utilities in Spain, France, Germany and the U.K., he said. In Spain, Bit Stew is looking for opportunities to help manage utilities’ government-mandated smart meter rollouts, for example. In the U.K., it wants to analyze grid and vegetation management data to help utilities predict and prevent power outages.
“In Germany,” the country with the world’s biggest share of wind and solar power, “it has to do mostly with the bidirectional grid, and utilizing data to understand the impact of renewables, both distributed and centrally,” he said. Smart solar inverters, which Germany has mandated for most of its solar system for the past several years, will be a key endpoint to integrate for that work, Castaldini added.
“Data you can collect directly from smart inverters begins to provide greater visibility into the collective impact of all the distributed generation that’s out there,” he said -- something that utilities in California and Hawaii are also beginning to experiment with. “That requires an understanding of the alarm signals coming from the control systems, the GIS data, the specific status of the solar panels that are connected to that smart inverter, and being able to trend that data.”
These use cases are on the roadmaps of established grid software control system vendors like GE, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Alstom and Toshiba. Likewise, data analytics providers like Oracle, IBM, C3 Energy, AutoGrid and Space-Time Insight are all seeking to integrate the multiple data sources required to provide grid operator insight into these new, potentially disruptive grid edge systems.
But Bit Stew has been landing some significant utility wins against, and in partnership with, these types of companies since it landed hometown utility BC Hydro as its first customer in 2011. The startup joined Cisco and Itron in helping the utility plan, deploy and manage ongoing operations of its 2 million smart meters.
“We’ve taken our technology and applied it to some of the most complex data sources, speaking different languages, in different data formats, with a common model that allows utilities to build applications in a very accelerated way, because we apply machine learning to it,” Castaldini said. (Read this article for a deeper explanation of Bit Stew’s approach.)
Over the past year, Bit Stew has won some significant utility contracts, in some cases beating out deep-pocketed competitors such as Oracle and C3 Energy, according to industry scuttlebutt. Last year, San Diego Gas & Electric picked Bit Stew for the second and third phases of its Smart Meter Operations Center, which will be tapping smart meter data for advanced analytics applications like asset management, performance trending, work management and early-warning outage detection.
Castaldini also confirmed that customer Pacific Gas & Electric is using the startup’s software for its Grid Operations Situational Intelligence (GOSI) project, funded under the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge initiative. The GOSI project is testing out “next-generation operator consoles” to see whether a “single interface software platform” can handle multiple grid operator tasks, including “real-time data integration and visualization for distributed energy resources.”
PG&E is building three new distribution grid operations centers, and “we’re already in production in one of them,” Castaldini said. “You can go to that facility and see Bit Stew on their big-screen monitors, managing their situational intelligence around external events like fires and earthquakes, and the risks they pose to their grid assets.” That requires fast integration of data from PG&E’s distribution management system, smart meters, and external data from fire services and seismic monitoring stations.
Bit Stew’s role at this juncture is to provide “situational intelligence” to the systems that run smart meter networks, SCADA systems and other grid assets, Castaldini said. But eventually, it would like to make the move to what the startup calls “software-defined operations,” or “creating a closed-loop system that uses data to drive automation. That’s our vision of where we can take this technology.”
Of course, few utilities are ready to turn over their core grid operations to an automated platform. “The technology is ahead of the market, is how I would describe it,” he said. “Operators are using the data today to inform their decision-making process. Over time, the data will be used to drive the decision-making process.”
Greentech Media named Bit Stew to its Grid Edge 20 list this year, in recognition of the work it’s doing to help utilities manage and control the intelligent sensors, rooftop solar systems, behind-the-meter batteries, real-time demand response platforms and other distributed technologies that are becoming an increasingly integral part of the world’s energy supply. Come to our Grid Edge Live 2015 conference on June 23-25 in San Diego to learn more about this bottom-up transformation of the utility sector.