First PES GridEdge Conference Centered Start-ups
When the first IEEE PES GridEdge Technologies Conference and Exposition was still in its very early planning stages, before there was ever a date set or a venue selected, conference chair Ahad Esmaeilian wanted it to be different from the average IEEE conference. High on the list of priorities was ensuring start-ups and entrepreneurs have center stage.
Billing the conference as ‘an event built by the industry, for the industry,’ Esmaeilian and his colleagues on the organizing committee created a smaller footprint for academic research than many other IEEE conferences, mixed stages for technical presentations among the exhibitor booths in the grand expo hall, and in the heart of it all, crafted a large Start-up Stage where founders could pitch their products to industry professionals.
“We wanted the character of this conference to be about new technologies – innovation, innovation, innovation,” Esmaeilian said.
“Coming from a deep root of academia background, I did my PhD and that’s how I got involved with IEEE, which is still kind of addicted to that model,” Esmaeilian, who serves as a VP of Clean Energy at Audubon Companies in addition to his IEEE roles, said.”We wanted to create a balance between the leading research plus mixing that research with the development of actual work that is being done.”
Creating that balance required being selective about the topics, panelists and exhibitors invited to participate in the conference. It also centered on ensuring the committee’s org chart included a start-up, VC and corporate liaison role.
“I hope that balance exists and that bridge between the balance of academic and industry is the start-up piece,” Esmaeilian said.
“From the very beginning, we have been all along asking ourselves, and have been asked by exhibitors and potential attendees, what sets you apart (from your competitors). And we kept pedaling a few things; one being the start-up component; one being IEEE as a deeply rooted technical organization who will help us keep that character of technical content as well, not just be all about those fancy trade show booths and so on.”
Start-up founders share their challenges and successes during a panel discussion in the Start-up Showcase.
GridEdge had its share of large, corporate sponsors, but while they dominated the technical program, they had a smaller presence in the expo hall than at some of the larger commercial conferences. That was by design. Instead of being an overwhelming circus of promotional items, the expo hall created an atmosphere that encouraged mingling and discussions, touring of the IEEE USA MOVE van, snacking over the ice cream stands, or seeing a drone take flight. Lounges throughout the floor allowed for easy interactions and the Start-up Stage in the center caught the attention of nearby attendees who wandered past.
After serving as the vice chair of the IEEE ISGT conference for two years, and building upon his success as chair of GridEdge, Esmaeilian is receiving calls from many of his IEEE colleagues asking his advice on ensuring their conferences are timely, relevant, and delivering value to its attendees. His advice is simple – don’t just do what’s already been done.
While mixing industry with start-ups with academic presentations is a model that can be replicated for nearly every Society or Council conference, Esmaeilian recommends conference organizers not simply duplicate GridEdge’s methods in the hopes of achieving the same success.
“Shake up the standard IEEE conference,” he told IEEE Entrepreneurship. “But don’t just think about replicating our methods; think about how relevant that replication could be. One recipe doesn’t fit all.”
Esmaeilian points to an example of a conference that has been so successful at encouraging students to attend and present in the past that now students are their primary conference audience. In such a case, having a large start-up presence or industry focus might not yield the desired results.
“There is nothing wrong if you have students coming in but if you can’t bring in revenue because sponsors aren’t there, maybe leverage the power of those students. Reach out to the industry’s HR side and ask them to come in and sponsor certain things. Have them sponsor a career fair.
Essentially, bring an entrepreneurial mindset to conferences to ensure they’re continuing to evolve and grow at the pace of the industry, and adapt when needed.
“Be so much out of the box that the box looks like a dot,” Esmaeilian said.
IEEE Entrepreneurship Chair Joanne Wong provided guidance to the GridEdge committee on incorporating start-ups into the conference and served as a judge for several pitch sessions.