Issue: September/October 2010
Entrepreneur's Toolkit: Light Savers
Chris Clark and his startup, Sunflower Solutions, created low-cost solar arrays that are bringing power to hospitals, schools and water pumps in underdeveloped countries.
Chris Clark doesn’t like titles such as CEO or president. They’re too traditional.
And since his company is not traditional in any way, Clark has taken the title of Solar Empowerer.
What to Ask
Are you even ready to go global?
Bob Chalfant, a lecturer on entrepreneurship at the University of Akron, says typically, a startup shouldn’t look overseas immediately. If you do, know that “to set up a sales force overseas is going to be a huge investment.”
Do you know anyone in country?
Relationships are key, Chalfant says. “You need to have someone in country all the time.”
Do you understand various barriers to exporting?
You’ll need to know about everything from tariffs to export laws to the different limits on the amount of technology one can bring into various countries, Chalfant says.
What’s the price point at which you can be profitable?
To compete with someone in country, you’re going to have to beat them on price or value, says Cliff Somerville of Lake Erie College. “What is the value proposition? Why should they buy from you versus a local countryman or someone they have been purchasing from over the last five, 10 years?”
That’s because his company, Sunflower Solutions, has developed a low-cost, manual solar array by eliminating the computers used in solar tracking equipment.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told this is a straight-up stupid idea,” he says. “They say, ‘Who would take the time to go out
and move it when they could pay more and have it move automatically?’ ”
Clark concedes those people have a point, at least when it comes to Americans and other people who live in a developed world where electricity is on the grid.
But he envisions his manually adjusted solar tracking arrays being plucked down in developing countries that have little money, no reliable electric grid and a need for electricity.
“If you say to them, ‘All you have to do is spend five minutes a day, three times a day, to move this thing,’ they say ‘great,’ ” Clark says.
So far, six arrays are spread throughout the world, powering hospitals, schools and water pumps in countries such as India, Kenya, Rwanda and Haiti.
Clark, 24, is only two years removed from his Miami University graduation. In one college class, he teamed up with some engineering students who were building solar-powered water pumps to create a business plan for their invention.
“To keep costs down, I said we should have the solar panels positioned so a person could move them and keep them facing toward the sun,” he says.
His plan won two competitions, and judges told him the product had some real potential. After graduating, Clark started the company.
Within five months, he had a solar array on the ground in Kenya, powering a school.
The company has done quite a bit already with just $60,000 — $30,000 from a grant from the Civic Innovation Lab and the rest from family and friends — partly because none of the six employees, including Clark, are receiving a salary yet.
“It really did get started with a social mission,” Clark says. “We’ve been able to leverage a lot of work for not much money. This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. I think we can do some good, and later on, down the road, I think we can make some money.”
That time may be coming soon. Sunflower Solutions is in initial talks with companies in India for 20,000 arrays that would be used to convert cell phone towers from fuel-based generators to solar power.
The company’s emPower Plant is essentially a large solar panel assembly attached to a pole. A large handle underneath allows even the smallest person to swing the panel around or change the degree to which it faces the sky.
Unlike computerized solar arrays, the emPower Plant is positioned using only a set of markings, a color-coded chart and the user’s knowledge of the month and time of day. It generates up to 16 kilowatt hours per day and costs between $10,000 and $100,000 to build, depending on the consumer’s needs.
“We like to say we don’t sell a system,” Clark says. “We sell education. We sell health care. We sell clean water. We sell economic development, because that is what the electricity that we produce is used for.”
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