A Tech Billionaire's Energy Institute is Up and Running. Where Are Its Grants Going?

Last year, software billionaire Thomas Siebel launched the Siebel Energy Institute to advance energy research, and especially the use of data in energy grids. Two rounds of grantmaking in, what kind of projects are taking home funding?

The philanthropy of Thomas and Stacey Siebel, derived from a customer relations software company that sold to Oracle for $6 billion in 2005, is known for its pretty specific interests. One of its big initiatives, for example, is a prevention program strictly targeting methamphetamine use in the U.S. The funder also just backed a new Center for Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a $25 million gift. And the Siebel Foundation’s signature program, Siebel Scholars, rewards grad students at 16 pre-selected schools, who periodically convene and help direct the funder’s priorities. 

Another of the Siebels’ more interesting programs is the Siebel Energy Institute that kicked off in summer 2015, devoted entirely to developing intelligent software that can improve energy systems—smart grid technology.

Governments and companies worldwide are in the process of embedding sensors throughout energy systems to make them more efficient, resilient, and capable of managing renewables. But just as we’re seeing in many sectors right now, processing the volume of collected data is a challenge. 

The institute seeks to improve analysis of how energy is produced, transmitted, and consumed, from the regional level down to homes and even individuals, supporting the work of nine member universities through seed and matching grants, workshops, and conferences. 

Like a lot of tech philanthropy, the institute complements its donor’s business interests, as Thomas Siebel is founder of data and Internet of Things-based software company C3 IoT, formerly C3 Energy. Siebel has pointed out that while there’s overlap between the two endeavors, all the research done at the institute goes into the public domain. 

As far as grantmaking goes, the Siebel Energy Institute’s main conduit is making rounds of $50,000 seed funding grants, of which there have been two so far, totaling almost $1.7 million. Another round is in the works now, with proposals due this month. The intent of the smallish grants is to back the development of a proposal that will gain greater funding from government or other private sources. 

Looking at the institute’s most recent round of grants, there’s a mix of projects covering topics like making power grids more resilient to cyberattacks and outages, improving their ability to manage renewables, and optimizing efficiency by better understanding consumption. 

For example, 2016 funds went to one MIT-based project to improve security of the Internet of things in homes and office buildings, using algorithms to detect abnormal activity in networks of sensor-embedded devices. On the renewables front, a Princeton project seeks to improve prediction of wind power production levels over time by combining short-term data with mid-term weather prediction models. 

Microgrids, small, independent energy systems often in rural or remote areas, are the subject of other recent grants. One such project at École Polytechnique aims to use internet of things technology to improve microgrids’ efficiency and ability to manage renewables. 

Others projects are even more micro, focused on energy consumption right down to the individual. A grant to Berkeley researchers will investigate how to use wearables and monitoring systems to maximize both efficiency and human comfort. Another proposal at Politecnico di Torino would develop a web platform that shows individuals their energy consumption compared to others, to increase awareness of how citizens’ habits affect their energy use.  

Finally, the funder has made two rounds of energy science scholarships, an addition to the Siebel Scholars program, with 17 grad students taking home $35,000 each. Not project-related, the awards offset costs for young leaders in energy science.