The SfunCube Solar Incubator: Pushing the Solar Industry to Get Beyond “Start-up”

In one sense, every company in the solar industry is a “start-up.” Even if you’ve been in the solar business for a decade or more, the public and the press still commonly refer to solar as “alternative energy,” and despite the U.S. having more solar jobs than coal miners, we’re still less than 2% of the grid.

To get beyond being a global energy stepchild, we need fresh innovative ideas that will help the solar industry grow even faster than we’re already growing. Some of those ideas may come out of SfunCube, a new solar incubator founded by Sungevity’s co-founder Danny Kennedy and veteran environmental activist Emily Kirsch.

SfunCube describes itself as “an invitation-only community for solar start-ups,” and recently I was fortunate enough to be invited. As a part of the incubator, I get to set my laptop on a desk made from functional solar panels, but the benefits go way beyond shared office space, rich coffee, and conference rooms.

Where I hang my Solar Fred cap (and reading glasses) at the SfunCube solar incubator.

First of all, I’m surrounded by 100% solar entrepreneurs. No one’s building an app to find a parking space or to create the next wearable iWidget. If someone’s coding or building anything at the next solar panel desk over, it’s got something to do with solar.

In short, everyone speaks solar at the SfunCube, but we’re not just speaking about panels, inverters, or BOS. You’ll get conversations from a very broad spectrum, and that’s beautiful. Sure, that kind of spontaneous free exchange of ideas and interactions happens, but it’s usually twice a year at solar conventions. At SfunCube, it happens formally once a week when everyone gathers in one of the main community rooms and shares what they’re up to and their current challenges. Ideas and resources flow…or not. You never know, but that’s entrepreneurship.

Informally, an idea exchange actually happens every day. In fact, in my first few hours there, I interacted with several SfunCube members about their current projects, and it was a slow day with only a few of the 70+ SfunCube members present.

Fellow SfunCube solar start-up eco-preneur Michael Palmquist from Solar Nexus. Everybody gets a solar PV desk.

For me, that kind of go-to solar community interaction is priceless, but SfunCube incubator members can also be invited to join SfunCube’s accelerator program. For a small stake in the company, solar start-ups receive free SfunCube rent for 9-months, some limited funding, plus access to pro bono lawyers, management consultants, accounting firms, and potential capital and investors.

SfunCube co-founder Emily Kirsch, center, at SfunCube admin central.

Danny Kennedy echoed my first impressions when I asked him why he co-founded Sfuncube. He told me, “One of the proven ways to ensure and accelerate the building of successful ventures from an early stage is to bring them together for peer support and learning, efficient servicing and recruitment, as well as just giving them the sense that they’re not alone. We’ve taken a building in Uptown Oakland and are turning it into the epicenter of the solar ascent. There are intentional ways to build start-up communities that succeed and we will implement the best practices for our solar entrepreneurs in years to come.”

So far, SfunCube’s biggest success is solar crowd funding platform Solar Mosaic, and it’s now looking to repeat that success with many more companies. If building lean, friendly, solar companies and sharing ideas in a cool community workspace is your kind of entrepreneurship, grab tickets to this SfunCube’s Solar Start Up Party 2014, happening August 21st.

This BBQ gathering happens on SfunCube’s penthouse roof deck and is meant to celebrate SfunCube’s recent expansion to 14,000 square feet of solar paneled office space, and perhaps more importantly, to announce a new corporate sponsor that aims to help more SfunCube solar entrepreneurs.

Kennedy is very serious about SFunCube’s mission and he truly sees it as an important resource to solar scaling up. He said, “SfunCube wants to ensure a higher hit-rate amongst entrepreneurs trying their luck on the solar coaster. We all know the transition to solar power is inevitable with over half the energy investment in the next 15 years expected to be in solar companies, technologies and projects. That’s trillions of dollars, but the scale of the existing industry cannot deliver on that potential. So we need more start-ups to grow up and become ‘big business’ fast.”

It’s organizations like the SfunCube that are going to help the solar industry to transition from our “start-up” label and to “big business,” and help more solar companies… to UnThink Solar.

Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred” is a solar marketing and communications consultant and the author of Solar Fred’s Guide to Solar Guerrilla Marketing. Sign up for the Solar Fred Marketing Newsletter, or contact him through UnThink Solar. You can also follow @SolarFred on Twitter.

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