Published on December 20th, 2012 | by admin0
Shining the spotlight on female entrepreneurship
It is a late October afternoon when I reach 33-year old Comlight CEO Siri Skøien at the other end of the phone connection in Oslo, in between meetings and traveling, to ask her about how life has been since she received the prestigious award at the beginning of March.
“It’s been a real energy boost. In this job you’re constantly in demanding situations, whilst meeting customers and investors, and always trying to work harder. It is very rarely that you take a pause and reflect over your accomplishments, so it was definitely nice to get this positive recognition of your work.”
Before launching into the world of cleantech, Siri had a background in finance and marketing, with an education at the Norwegian business school. A few years ago she started thinking about finding a new system for street lighting that would reduce energy costs without compromising safety.
”We teach our children to turn off the lights every time we leave a room. This principle, I thought, should be able to apply to other areas or spaces where light is needed, for example along motorways. I drive quite a lot myself so I know how important outdoor lighting is. At the same time, long stretches of country roads in Norway are lit all night long when they are not being used. In other words, a considerable amount of energy is being wasted.”
Activity managed light
As an increasing number of authorities are starting to look at possibilities to cut costs and energy consumption by switching streetlights off completely, the question of the impact on traffic safety arises. ‘Added intelligence’ such as smarter control systems, energy metering, stepless dimming and two-way communications, for example, are today all being integrated into modern solutions. Other streetlight control systems however dim down the light even when there’s traffic during the night.
Thus, Siri initiated the project of creating a system where “switching off the light” would be the principle, and started developing this together with engineers and researchers. Central to the technology is a radar detector and wireless WiFi. The radar senses the real-time activity on the street. When one detector is triggered, it then communicates to a number of adjacent light poles via the wireless communication system to illuminate the street for a set distance ahead. As a driver, it would appear to be lit as normal but if you were looking down from an aerial view, what you see is a ‘light wave’ guiding the car. And if a unit has been vandalized, the communication will bypass the ‘dead’ one so that the ‘light wave’ continues upstream.
There have been some challenges when it comes to the technological aspects. For example, how to deal with large trees moving in the wind, which could affect the radar. The system has to sense what objects are in need of light. Also, it has to be robust enough to sustain several years of usage in extreme weather conditions.
Since its launch, the Comlight system has been tested in trials in Norway with the Norwegian Public Roads Administration and the company now has several
installations in other countries such as Switzerland, Canada and France. The solution is best suited to lighting applications in areas of lower traffic intensity rather than a busy street in the city center. Besides the aspect of energy efficiency and money saving there are also, according to Siri, environmental issues to consider.
“There’s a lot of artificial lighting in our modern society, which in the long run will have a negative impact on biodiversity, since animals and plants are not made to withstand additional light that is not coming from the sun.”
Being a role model
For the last four years, Innovation Norway – a company owned by the Norwegian government and aimed at promoting nationwide industrial development – and The Ministry of Trade and Industry have awarded the Female Entrepreneur of the Year. Part of the prize is a scholarship of one million Norwegian krone. The award was presented on the 8th of March, the International Women’s day. The prize is intended to support female entrepreneurship by putting forward good role models, an epithet that Siri feels pleased to take on.
”Many people say that I am a role model, and I think this is something I would like to be as well. I want to show that the impossible is possible – whatever you want to learn or achieve. But you have to be a ‘stayer’. You need perseverance and the capacity to deal with setbacks without giving up. But that is part of the life of being an entrepreneur. It’s always two steps forward and one step back.”
According to Siri, being a business woman in the Norwegian cleantech industry has thus far proven to be regarded as something positive, yet not always without challenges.
”Generally, I think women have the same starting-points as male entrepreneurs. But for some reason there aren’t as many women who choose this path. This is probably because it is a great challenge to work in a male-dominated business, which also demands a great deal of capital, time and strength. Many women might perceive this as intimidating.”
“It’s been challenging for me as well. However, I would say that this is rather due to the fact that I have a different background. I come from a more business oriented world and now I am constantly working with engineers, both as clients and as partners. So I have been forced to learn quite a lot during recent years. In the end I have believed in my idea and if there were to be any possible limitations, I was probably too naïve to perceive them. I’ve always tackled challenges along the way rather than trying to deal with them in advance.”