SfunCube: Lighting the Way for Solar Innovation in California

rp_ca_innov_series_icon_283x204.jpgEDF’s Innovators Series profiles companies and people across California with bold solutions to reduce carbon pollution and help the state meet the goals of AB 32. Each addition to the series will profile a different solution, focused on the development of new technology and ideas.

Emily Kirsch calls herself a “solar-lifer.” Kirsch came onto the solar scene by way of former Obama advisor Van Jones’ green jobs campaign in Oakland. Now, as the co-founder and CEO of Oakland-based SfunCube—the world’s only solar-exclusive start-up business accelerator—Kirsch is growing California’s clean economy in an entirely new way and she knows the future of solar is bright.

Nestled in the heart of downtown Oakland, SfunCube—Solar for Universal Need—is supporting a growing “solar ecosystem” of the most promising solar startups that are making the San Francisco Bay Area the nation’s epicenter for solar innovation and entrepreneurship. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Emily Kirsch and some of the solar pioneers who are working at SfunCube to make universal access to solar a reality in California, throughout the US, and around the world.

In California today, there are over 1,889 solar companies that are part of the solar supply chain, creating more than 50,000 jobs—roughly a third of all the solar jobs in the country—and that is no coincidence.

Emily Kirsch

Emily Kirsch, co-founder and CEO of SfunCube

“In California the solar industry now employs more people than many of the state’s major investor-owned utilities and it’s possible because of the policies that have been enacted here in California,” said Kirsch. “The success of solar startups in SfunCube is possible because of California’s renewable policy wins.”

Business accelerators, like incubators, can play an important role in the lifecycle of start-up businesses. Accelerators like SfunCube provide critical resources and a place for “creative collisions” that help businesses take off and establish a firm trajectory for sustainability and growth. However, unlike other business accelerators that cover a wide range of industries, SfunCube hones in on a single industry – solar – allowing them to provide the best business development advisors, policy expertise, and synergistic community to solar entrepreneurs.

Once invited into the nine-month accelerator program, entrepreneurs get access to free office space, legal, financial and public relations services, networking events and contacts, and, of course, capital. In return, SfunCube takes a five percent equity stake in the company—ensuring the financial sustainability of SfunCube’s Accelerator, all while jump-starting new businesses and bringing their diverse solutions for cutting the “soft costs” of solar to market.

Who: SfunCube accelerates the success of solar entrepreneurs by providing the world’s most vibrant ecosystem for solar startups.

What: SfunCube supports 20 solar startups and 65 solar entrepreneurs in house along with 200 more startup employees in the US and around the world.

Where: Oakland, California

Why: SfunCube provides solar entrepreneurs the resources they need to scale and bring down soft costs in the solar sector—aiding California in meeting the goals of AB 32 and furthering their own mission of making solar the most affordable and abundant energy resource in the world.

With solar hardware becoming increasingly affordable, bringing down soft costs—such as those associated with marketing, financing, permitting, and installation—have been central to both private sector and federal efforts to expand solar access. New products and services aimed at cutting these expenses represent much of the growth in the solar sector in the last five years—and in this realm, too, California continues to be a national leader.

By driving down costs, SfunCube’s business development model is fueling growth in California’s increasingly sophisticated and competitive solar market, and helping California achieve its ambitious AB 32 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. And, with over 20 businesses in SfunCube at any given time, SfunCube offers real-time proof of the opportunity for new business models emerging as a result of California’s climate leadership.

Here’s one example: one of the first graduates from SfunCube’s accelerator program, BrightCurrent, had just 20 employees when they started the accelerator. Now, nine months later, BrightCurrent has just hired its 100th employee and is the largest outsource retail solar provider in the entire US, funneling residential solar customers to installation companies throughout the country.

Prior to founding BrightCurrent, John Bourne worked for SunEdison, pioneer of the Power Purchase Agreement, the innovative financing mechanism that opened the doors to solar for millions of risk-averse customers for the first time and allowed the solar industry to mature. Yet, even with the huge uptick in homes going solar, Bourne set his sights higher.

With the price of equipment and panels plummeting and zero-down leases offered by companies like SunEdison, in many parts of the country solar became cheaper than relying solely on the grid. Still, 89% of homeowners were saying they would go solar, but couldn’t afford it. “It was crystal clear to me then,” said Bourne, “the problem was education.”

Across the nation, BrightCurrent is bringing that education directly to the customer in major solar retailers like Costco. And, they’ve reduced customer acquisition costs by more than 30% for the solar installers that work with them, savings that can be passed onto customers, making solar more accessible and affordable than ever.

BrightCurrent, like many of the companies within SfunCube’s fold, views California’s clean energy policies as a major reason to open up shop within the state. “The solar industry tracks the policy landscape,” said Bourne. “And stability in clean energy policy is a critical consideration for us in growing, hiring, and investing in our business. In California right now, we are a job-engine.”

The success of SfunCube businesses like BrightCurrent demonstrates that SfunCube’s accelerator model can work and that lawmakers’ getting the policy right is critical to its success. As other states and nations begin adopting versions of California’s clean energy policies, SfunCube is also looking to replicate its model, bringing the products and services of its entrepreneurs to cities across the globe.

For now, Emily Kirsch knows that California, with its groundbreaking climate legislation, has provided SfunCube its first and best opportunity to realize the vision of a clean energy future. “AB 32 is it,” said Kirsch. “It’s the cornerstone for clean energy policy in California, it’s the platform that makes our work possible, and it’s moving us toward our vision that, in less than 30 years, solar will be the most affordable and abundant energy resource in the world.”

Please note that EDF has a standing corporate donation policy and we accept no funding from companies or organizations featured in this series. Furthermore, the EDF California Innovators Series is in no way an official endorsement of the people or organizations featured, or their business models and practices.

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