Riley McAuliffe is the Acceleration Program Manager at EnergyLab. Prior to working with EnergyLab, she was an environmental engineer at GHD and completed a Master of Environment (Climate Change stream) at the University of Melbourne. She was also the Environment and Sustainability Program Manager at Global Voices, leading delegations of young professionals to five international summits including the 2015 COP21 in Paris.
In and outside work, Riley is passionate about energy and learning about climate change solutions. EnergyLab is now lucky to have Riley wholeheartedly committed to supporting clean energy and cleantech startups within its programs.
Tell us more about your role. What inspires you about your position as EnergyLab's Acceleration Program Manager?
I'm inspired by EnergyLab's dedication to the clean energy transition. I am very proud to be in a passionate, hard-working and high-achieving team. The EnergyLab team and our mission is what inspires me every day. The startups we support are working tirelessly to rethink and rebuild our energy system. Working at the forefront of the energy transition with our startups gives me the privilege of assisting them to reshape our future every day. I'm a stubborn optimist, so my solutions-focused work at EnergyLab plays to my strengths.
In my role no day is ever the same. It is my job to manage the day-to-day running of the Acceleration Program. That means that I manage the selection process through to the graduation of the startups. This involves interviewing prospective startups, helping the successful startups getting their house in order through the on-boarding process and once they start the Acceleration Program, working together with the startups to connect them with the people who can open doors for them and help them to overcome challenges. We're there through the highs and lows of the startup journey, which means talking through frustrations as well as celebrating victories. A startup recently thanked me for being their constant cheerleader, which I took as a big compliment! Someone described my job as a wheel in a bike [is that the right bike part!?], which is a metaphor that rings true for me. I spend my days bringing together everything needed for the program to run smoothly, and also connecting the startups to people to help them succeed.
I also manage the mentor network, which means supporting over 250 amazing senior professionals, investors and successful founders in the network, who constantly amaze me with their generosity and willingness to give their time and expertise to help our entrepreneurs develop and succeed. In practice this means that I'm often recruiting and connecting with amazing and inspiring professionals, which is a fantastic opportunity.
What can we expect from the program next year?
We have relaunched our Acceleration Program to reflect the learnings after running the program six times across the country. The program in 2020 is an opportunity to bring together all our collective learnings, what has worked well and what could be improved in order to best support the most promising clean energy startups in Australia.
The program is nine months long and will be centred around three three-month modules that assist startups to build a prototype that they can sell, to find their first customer, and then to raise capital to help them to grow. These modules will kick off with one-week intensives across Melbourne and Sydney where startups will attend masterclasses to build skills and be exposed to our mentor network, alumni and showcasing opportunities to help them build networks, supporters and the customers required to succeed.
In between the one-week intensives is time. Time to put their heads down and work on their startup, connect with the mentors network as required, work with EnergyLab's Chair Piers Grove, our fair leader and a successful entrepreneur, and connect and support one another.
What makes EnergyLab program different to other accelerators?
We are good friends with many accelerators. We are connected with the New Energy Nexus network, a global network of clean energy accelerators. We work together to learn from each other's successes and challenges. One thing about EnergyLab that I'm really proud of is that we support accelerators within and outside of our industry because more successful entrepreneurs is Australia is good for everyone. One of the things that makes us special is the team behind EnergyLab. We are a hard working, efficient and lovely team, if I do say so myself, who are here for coffees and chats but will follow through on our word and work tirelessly to support startups that we work with.
EnergyLab has a culture of honest and open feedback and constant improvement. We work really hard to refine our program, seek out opportunities for improvement and make our accelerator a world class programme for startups and an excellent experience for every founder we work with.
I have also been really proud that we don't buy into parts of the startup culture that can often be toxic. We are not a beer and pizza organisation that pushes entrepreneurs to work until they burn out. We take a holistic view of the founder's journey, supporting the humans behind the startups as much as the startups themselves. And we really value and work towards inclusivity and supporting a diverse startups. This isn't easy in an traditional industry like energy but our programs like the Women in Clean Energy Fellowship run by my colleague Milly Young are designed to combat this.
This means that what makes us different is that we support a broad range of entrepreneurs, many of whom have had five years to decades of experience in an industry before deciding to make a change and disrupt it. In our Intake 6 cohort in 2019, six of the nine startups we supported were founded by at least one parent. That is a number that I'm really proud of.
Why is it so critical for Australia to support clean tech focused startups?
Cleantech focused startups are at the forefront of change in the energy transition. Anyone paying an energy bill, filling their car up with petrol, sitting in traffic or feeling frustrated that their waste isn't being put to better use knows that this industry is waiting for major change. Our startups are creating profitable and inspiring clean tech solutions that customers want to pay for. That makes the major energy companies and other big players in this space pay attention, and hopefully change and adapt to a changing industry, all while the startups we work with grow to become major influencers.
Our startups and the work of EnergyLab also normalises new clean energy ideas, which I think is really important. We work really hard to help people understand and get excited by demand response, waste to energy technology, electric vehicles, clean energy and many other concepts that people may have heard about but may not fully understand. We hope that people are excited by these ideas when they understand what has already been achieved and the potential and opportunity that new ideas and technology presents.
To date, EnergyLab has supported 6 cohorts and 40 startups. What has been your most memorable experience?
It's the day-to-day experiences of working with the startups that I love the most. Of course the successes and victories are thrilling, but I really enjoying watching the startups break down and work through a big challenge. I have great respect for all our entrepreneurs, their passion for their work and the change they are trying to create, their capacity to take on risk, their ability to juggle many roles, they are amazingly capable people. It's a privilege to work with them. Seeing them focus on their passion and mission to get back up when disappointed to work through inevitable setbacks or bad news is incredible. They remind me to never give up on a daily basis. Of course, it is really exciting to see our alumni have significant victories, Amber Electric raising 2.5m, Sunshine Cycles spreading beautiful electric bikes across Byron Bay, Waste Ninja creating energy from waste across Melbourne.
The big and small victories are awesome. Madly cleaning the office to prepare for Channel 10 to interview Max Middleweek, Founder of Zero Impact, after he received a huge wave of media attention for his work transforming coffee waste after he received a City of Melbourne Grant was a highlight. As was attending the Jaunt Launch and feeling Juniper, the first beautiful iconic 4WD that they had purchased to convert to an electric vehicle, under my hands and really understanding their vision.
What is your advice to entrepreneurs who have a bold idea for a new business?
Customer research! Customer research! Customer research! First, understand the fundamentals of your business and what you are trying to achieving by quickly completing a business model canvas. Then, as soon as you can, start talking to your potential customers to understand if people are willing to pay for your solution.
The best way to achieve this is to ask about past behaviour. Understanding what your customers have paid for in the past, and how much they paid for it will quickly help you to understand if your idea is viable. Two books we recommend that every founder read to become really good at customer research, an essential skill, is Talking to Humans and The Mom Test.
If you would like to connect with Riley to learn more about the the EnergyLab program, email [email protected]. Our next accelerator program will start in February 2020 and is now open for applications until November 7.