When I meet Julien Uhlig, he’s in the middle of liaising with the Globe Theatre. They used to have a poster of him from when he sung at the opening of the theatre in 1997, he explains. While in London, he’s keen to get hold of it, if they’ve “still got it lying around”.
That same year, aged just 21, the classical singer started a New York-based opera casting company, after realising that there was a gap in the market for helping opera houses to source talent. He sold the firm in 2002, and then spent two years as a consultant at Lehmans.
In 2005, “because [his] wife wanted to”, he moved back to Germany.
“The government were the only people who would give me a job. They were looking for someone who could bring researchers and bankers together to help push forward on renewables.
“In 2008, I was in Ethiopia working with the German development agency. There was no tech available at all – and all options were too expensive. But there was a rough-looking guy who put a piece of bamboo on my table and said, ‘can you get energy from that?’. I had my challenge.”
Uhlig is now chief executive of Entrade, which is turning agricultural food and waste into power. “Our goal is nothing less than to totally disrupt the power structure.”
Last week, the firm was approved for the Nasdaq private market. Founded in 2009, with Uhlig drawing on his finance and research networks, Entrade has grown quickly.
It has also had a total of 44 government grants and backing from five VCs (all of whom have now been bought out), and 400 retail investors.
Since its inception, Entrade has developed several successful biomass power plants.
But it’s its latest generator – the E3 – which is causing some excitement. Billed as the world’s smallest biomass power plant, it’s no bigger than a large table and, using thermal chemical conversion, one machine can power 40 homes, generating 22 kilowatts of electricity and 55 kilowatts of heat.
“It’s far cheaper and quicker than burning it or using an anaerobic digester – you can get complete carbon conversion – and it requires only basic maintenance and operator expertise,” explains Uhlig.
The E3 uses 22kg of waste an hour, which breaks down into “syngas”, a hydrogen and carbon monoxide mix. That is then fed into an engine, which burns it and turns a turbine, generating electricity.
At the moment, the machine predominantly takes just conventional wood pellets (which are very dry, and from lumber mill sawdust). But it can also eat discarded nut shells and plastic bottles.
Like many clean energy firms, Entrade has received significant chunks of funding for the R&D work it does, and Uhlig has several teams working on getting the machine to accept other kinds of waste.
“The vision is and has always been to bring energy to the world’s poorest – and the generator is developed for African markets. The continent has shown you can jump from no phones to mobiles, bypassing landlines. We can do the same with power; you don’t need a grid anymore,” says Uhlig.
With four machines in Abuja, Nigeria, Entrade is about to deliver its first batch of 250 E3s to just one state in the country, with plans for 2,500 across Uganda, Ghana and Kenya.
“Everything there is done in diesel, but we’ve got an opportunity to build a long-term, renewable energy structure.”
Attempts to gasify wood on a small scale have proved tricky in the past, predominantly owing to high moisture levels. But pellets usually have less than 10 per cent moisture, and don’t produce much tar.
The E3 pilot – which has run in the UK, Austria, Germany and Italy – suggests that the generator can work stably and reliably. And it’s clear that the technology appeals to Western markets too.
By the first quarter of next year, Entrade will have delivered 75 E3s to UK customers, with a deal already agreed with MacDonald Hotels. It is aiming for a roll-out of 25 to 100 a month in 2016.
Entrade also plans to create 50 jobs in the UK over the next six months, mostly in the Liverpool area, and is starting a UK manufacturing line to keep up with demand. By the end of this year, it’ll have generators in ten different countries.
The machine in Macclesfield (the other pilot is in Glasgow) is now operating at 94-95 per cent capacity.
BLOWING HOT AND COLD
And Uhlig is quick to explain the financial benefits, too, with subsidised markets like the UK particularly attractive – for the firm and for would-be customers. “The E3 is already cheaper than using grid power, because you can also use the heat.
” Most of the UK interest in the E3 has come from SMEs, particularly rural ones. “If we operate the generator, we offer businesses a 20 per cent saving on energy cost. If they buy an E3, and are currently using oil, they’ll save roughly 40 per cent.”
Uhlig thinks the American response will be “particularly interesting,” especially as the generator can be used to cool as well as heat.
“Cooling is actually the biggest worldwide market. Air conditioning needs a lot of electricity; there’s waste heat, plus feeding in additional power. We haven’t needed subsidies to fund the R&D there; it’s a no brainer.”
As part of the E3’s current global roadshow, Entrade has been invited to take it to Silicon Valley, and is heading over this week.
Uhlig already owes a lot to the US. He puts his ability to build businesses down to the American entrepreneurial mindset.
“I was there for ten years, and they always talk big. Say ‘we want to be the largest de-centralised power provider by 2020’ and Germans will look at you like you’ve gone insane.”
But he is also quick to stress his countrymen’s forte: “I’ve lived in eight different countries and there’s something about German engineering... I’ve not seen anything like it anywhere else.”
With a workforce of engineers behind him and his invention, Uhlig describes his own job as “close to a conductor”. Feeling fully prepared for his Stateside trip, he chuckles, “we’ll be home in time for Oktoberfest.”
CV JULIEN UHLIG
Company name: Entrade Energiesysteme
Turnover: €5m in 2014
Number of staff: 50
Job title: Chief executive
Born: Bremen, Germany
Lives: Munich, Germany
Studied: Arts Management, New York University
Drinking: Brunello di Montalcino
Eating: NY dry aged steaks
Currently reading: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty
Favourite Business Book: The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
Talents: Classically trained musician
Heroes: Bill Clinton; Steve Jobs
First ambition: To become a world-class opera singer
Motto: Nothing worth doing is easy!
Most likely to say: Don’t worry. We will figure it out
Least likely to say: Let’s meet early in the morning for a meeting
Awards: Inc.com named Entrade the twelfth fastest-growing private energy company in Europe in 2015; E3 was in the top 10 best products for German Industriepreis 2015 at Hannover Trade Fair; Entrade was awarded one of Red Herring’s Top 10 European Startups in 2014