Business Models for Energy Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets

Client Organization: 
U-M William Davidson Institute (WDI)
Client is confirmed: 
Project Location : 
Ann Arbor, MI, USA
Secondary Client Organization: 
Erb Institute
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives: 

This project aims to build a body of knowledge around business models for energy entrepreneurship and innovation in emerging markets. This student group will develop a methodology for analyzing business models, conduct a survey to collect both quantitative and qualitative data for energy-related business models in emerging markets, and write profiles of successful business models and how they may apply in other countries. WDI intends to build upon this research by using the methodology developed during this project in other countries.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance:  

A healthy market for small, locally-owned businesses and access to energy are two major drivers of poverty reduction. Distributed energy resources have the potential to meet the growing demand for energy in emerging markets without the large-scale climate impacts of conventional energy generation. When implemented by local entrepreneurs, there is also potential to stimulate economic growth through the provision of energy. This project aims to identify successful models at this intersection.

Specific Activities & Duration: 

The scale of the project is appropriate for the 16 month timeframe. Students will: conduct a literature review to understand the global environment for energy entrepreneurship, conduct desk research to understand the context and regulatory environment in one or more of Cuba/Gabon/India, develop a methodology for analyzing business models, create a survey and administer it in the field with the support of in-country partners, conduct analysis on survey data, write profiles on successful business models, and disseminate findings to appropriate stakeholders.

Integrative Approach:

This project requires a variety of skillsets so there would be opportunities for students to share their expertise and even lead different components of the project. Once the team is selected, the sponsor, advisor, and team will work together to determine the best way to utilize the diverse skills the team members have to offer.

Skills/Expertise Needed: 
Secondary Client Confirmed: 
SEAS Program Areas: 
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Sustainable Systems
Role for each program area: 

Ideally, all students on this project will have prior work experience either in the private sector or in an emerging market context. Students should demonstrate a strong understanding of business models/strategies and the energy sector, and should be able to work in a cross-cultural environment. Spanish/French/Hindi language skills are a plus, but are not required.

Sustainable Systems: Is a required field of study for this project and should be most highly represented on the team (2-3 students). Students from this track should have a strong understanding of the energy sector with regards to both technology and business models and will focus on the methodology for evaluating business models.

Environmental Policy and Planning: Is also a required field of study for this team. One EPP student with experience in emerging markets will focus on the regulatory environment in emerging markets and policy implications that impact the energy-related businesses that will be studied.

Behavior, Education, and Communication: Is not required but could be a relevant field of study if the student has the appropriate background in emerging markets. A BEC student would focus on the qualitative research methods used for data collection, understanding social factors that influence the adoption of new energy technologies, and how those factors could impact the success of a business in a particular setting.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

Students would have the opportunity to gain field experience, learn about market-based solutions for poverty alleviation, develop a relationship with WDI and other stakeholders, and disseminate their work through WDI as cases, blog posts, etc. There may also be an opportunity for a team member to develop an internship opportunity that leverages the relationships developed as part of the project and contributes to its objectives.

Funding Sources: 

WDI and the Erb Institute will support travel costs for the project that are not covered through other funding sources that are available to students (SEAS, Rackham, etc). 

Identify expected products/deliverables: 


  1. A survey that could be used by future groups to expand upon this work
  2. A methodology for analyzing survey results
  3. Profiles of successful business models in a form appropriate for dissemination
  4. Publication and dissemination of takeaways/recommendations (case studies, blog posts, papers, etc)


Project outputs will be used as the basis for developing a broader, global body of knowledge around energy entrepreneurship in emerging markets so WDI will further this research themselves or through future student engagements (internships, short- and long-term projects, etc) and external partnerships. As appropriate, the work will be shared with WDI and Erb’s broader networks through Erb’s blog, WDI’s blog (NextBillion), WDI’s case publishing team, or other venues.

Contact full name: 
Colm Fay
Job title: 
Program Manager, Scaling Impact Initiative, WDI
Ann Arbor
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Joe Arvai
Contact Phone: 
Advisor Confirmed: 
Contact e-mail: 
Additional Faculty Advisor(s) Confirmed: 
Contact information: 
SNRE alum
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Ellen Abrams 
  • Kevin Bosma 
  • Matthew Carney 
  • Connor Cox 
  • Allison Miller 
  • Amanda Willis 
Project Status: 
In Progress