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Solar startup CTO sees value in partnerships

Solar startup CTO sees value in partnerships

Redback CTO says working at a startup requires multiple hats

Despite the government's pro-coal stance, Paul Liddell CTO at Redback Technologies, a developer of solar and battery storage solutions, says its customers get a huge kick out of not having to use “coal power from the grid."

The solar energy industry has been a growing industry in Australia since the early 2000s. As of early 2019, Australia had over 11,085 MW of installed photovoltaic (PV) solar power, of which 3,871 MW was installed in the preceding 12 months.

“We love to hear how proud they are of providing support to the grid. That's just great job satisfaction for me and for the rest of the company,” Liddell tells CIO Australia.

“The Australian market quite high energy prices, so it makes it even more attractive to harness the sun – which helps to displace the high energy bill cost.”

Liddell said that's one of the things Redback is really focused on with its product, given the volatility of energy prices and by having a hybrid solar system with the battery, customers can produce around 90 per cent of their energy requirements.

Redback’s inverter hardware uses power electronics and cloud system control. This allows customers to analyse and control energy generation and consumption in real time. Its inverters are upgradable as new features become available.

Founded in April 2015 and based in Brisbane, Redback Technologies is supported by the Microsoft Innovation Centre and partners with Sonepar and The University of Queensland.

Liddell said as a CTO with a startup, he has many roles that he has to play. The obvious one being technology. 

It's important for the company to figure out what its technology and architecture is, have a partner strategy and build an internal team, says Liddell.

“Over time you've got the customer facing side, really understand what your technology is for and what are your customers looking for in the technology,” he said.

“I actually spent quite a lot of time with customers, as well taking on the board and investment side of the job. You really have these four different areas that you're constantly kind of bouncing between.”

Liddell's career started with Microsoft, where he worked as lead program manager in its Redmond, US headquarters for nine years. The main difference between working for a major technology company and a startup is the ability to try out different technologies, he said.

“At a as a startup there isn’t that luxury to try out technology developed by other parts of the company. But what you can do is choose your partners to help broaden your team and innovation,” he said.

“That's something that we've certainly done. We’ve actually partnered with Microsoft, naturally, because I was very familiar with the technology.”

Liddell said startups don't have to build everything from scratch and can use technology that its partner has developed as core infrastructure technology.

“Find the partners who can your job easier, and help you get a final finished product in less time,” he said. 

"Doing this allows us to focus on layering our solutions on top of that infrastructure, which saves us a lot of times.”

Meanwhile, Liddell said Redback Technologies has been able to utilise its partnership with Queensland University as a source for technical talent.

“We recruit out of the university top engineering graduates. We also have a great research partnership with the university,” he said.

“So when there are some of those thorny research projects that are going to take a reasonable amount of time, we'll partner with the university to get some of that work done. That allows us to keep a pretty lean team, but still get, you know, cover a lot of ground.”

Despite running a lean ship, Liddell said the ability to be agile helps startups like Redback, fail and pick themselves up quickly to try again.

“Any startup tells you that they've had plain smooth sailing the whole way through their technology development pipeline aren’t giving you the full picture. We've made plenty of mistakes here,” he said.

“However, we've never made any huge technology mistakes. We were very careful and spent a lot of time working on our core architecture and understanding the patterns of how we wanted to connect up to the cloud; as well as how people would interact with the devices.

“We were very careful about doing that. I think that's something that as a startup, you need to spend a lot of time on is getting those core concepts well understood.”

Liddell said Redback has made mistakes about how exactly they wanted to implement technology, whether or not it was worth investing in a small part of its technology stack, or one of the contributing technologies it chose.

“I think the agility is the key to you need to recognise early on that you've made a mistake. Don't get bogged down by those mistakes, just figure out the right way to move and then use that agility as your advantage and move in a different direction,” he said.

Liddell said Redback Technologies is continuing its path of growth.

“We have a long three year program of innovative research that we're doing with the university and that gets incorporated back into our products,” he said.

“We're working with a number of developers on installing our systems into large groups of new homes. We’ve also seen an explosion in the uptake of commercial solar in Australia – which really started to take off at start of last year.”

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