Hacking the Sun

Q&A with Emily Kirsch, Co-Founder and CEO of SfunCube

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Q: What is the current state of the solar industry?

A: Solar is winning, especially when it comes to jobs. According to the Solar Foundation, in the United States, the solar industry now has more employees than Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter combined. Solar jobs are growing 20 times faster than economy-wide employment. In 2014, the US economy added jobs at a growth rate of 1.1% while the solar industry added jobs at a growth rate of 22%. The solar jobs growth forecast is eight times greater than coal, oil, and gas combined. In California, the solar industry has more employees than all of the investor-owned utilities combined. Furthermore, one out of every 78 new jobs created in the US, since the 2013 Census estimates, were created by the solar industry—including mine. This is just the beginning; as the global solar industry grows from hundreds of billions to multiple trillions over the next 20 years, we need engineers, business professionals, and data scientists to join and start solar companies that will lead the transition to a world run on the sun.

Q: What is the current state of entrepreneurship in the solar industry?

A: We are an industry of startups. Even publicly traded solar companies with the highest market shares like SolarCity, SunEdision, and Vivint are all less than ten years old. While SolarCity, a nine-year-old company with more than 10,000 employees—and hiring 150 people every week—is no doubt substantial, compared to our century-old oil and gas infrastructure, we as an industry are just getting warmed up. As solar industry leaders gain traction across the US and around the globe, startups filling niche gaps are bringing tremendous value to the industry with software, finance, and analytic solutions.

Solar Decathlon 2011

U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 collegiate teams. The development of solar energy brings in new opportunities for aspired young professionals. (Image: Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon, Flickr Creative Commons)

Q: What are key challenges in the solar industry and how can entrepreneurs help address them?

A: While the cost of solar hardware, like panels, has dropped over 80% in the past 5 years, solar soft costs like financing, generating leads, and acquiring those leads as customers remain high. In fact, for residential installations, 64% of the cost is not in hardware, but in soft costs. It is time to hack the sun.

That is where SfunCube comes in. SfunCube accelerates the success of solar entrepreneurs by building the world’s most vibrant ecosystem for solar startups. SfunCube is an epicenter of solar innovation in the heart of the Bay Area and is quickly becoming the entrepreneurial leader in building a solar-powered world. With backing from industry leaders like Sungevity and GE Energy Ventures, SfunCube is the world’s first incubator and accelerator exclusive to solar. SfunCube provides collaborative co-working space, connections to customers, and connections to capital for early stage solar startups focused on software and finance solutions. With over 20 companies in-house employing more than 300 people, SfunCube startups have contributed, via their software and financing products, to the installation of more than 500 MW of solar in the US and around the world. To put that into perspective, in 2014, the entire US installed 6,201 MW of solar.

SfunCube recently hosted our third annual Solar Hackathon where 100 developers, designers, and solar experts from universities, developer boot camps, and solar companies converged to hack solar solutions to advance the industry. Four winning teams took home a total of $10,000 in cash. Winners can be viewed on YouTube and ChallengePost, and photos are on Twitter and Facebook.

Q: What are some stories of the current leaders among solar startups that you would like to share with us?

A: Leading the rapid evolution of solar financing is Mosaic, one of the first solar companies in SfunCube’s Incubator. Mosaic created the first US online marketplace to offer solar investments to the public. They are the leading platform for connecting investors with high-quality solar deals while lowering the cost of capital. Co-founders Billy Parish and Dan Rosen, partnered to start Mosaic to create a world that is powered by abundant clean energy that is owned by everyday people.

Among solar software companies, UtilityAPI, soon to graduate from SfunCube’s 9-month Accelerator, enables the new energy economy one data set at a time. UtilityAPI is an enterprise software company that delivers simple access to energy usage data. They are solving one of the biggest soft cost problems in the solar industry by automatically downloading utility bill history data. Co-Founder and CEO, Elena Lucas, used to work for PG&E and saw firsthand how difficult it was for people interested in going solar to access their own utility bill data. Elena partnered with UtilityAPI’s Co-Founder and CTO Daniel Roesler to change that.

BrightCurrent, one of the first graduates of SfunCube’s Accelerator, specializes in customer acquisition by managing retail sales campaigns for the biggest brands in clean energy. BrightCurrent has become the largest provider of outsourced retail sales for the clean energy economy. BrightCurrent has more than 100 employees in five states and hires many employees straight out of high school and college. Co-Founder and CEO, John Bourne, who worked at SunEdison, believes education was the catalyst for clean energy adoption. He tried to initiate a BrightCurrent-like idea in-house but was not getting support fast enough so he teamed up with BrightCurrent Co-Founder and CFO Jack Bertuzzi to build it on their own.

Q: How would you envision the development of the solar industry in the coming decades? What roles do you see young professionals and students take on?

A: Tom Werner, President and CEO of SunPower, one of the largest solar PV manufacturers in the world, predicts that solar will be a $5 trillion industry within the next 20 years. The question is: who will lead the trillion-dollar transition?

Some of us are already solar electricity consumers. But some of us, like Billy and Dan of Mosaic, Elena and Daniel of UtilityAPI, and John and Jack of BrightCurrent, will not only consume solar electricity, but also be the driving force behind its adoption by lowering soft costs and making it easier and more affordable for everyone to power their lives with sunshine.

Most solar entrepreneurs in SfunCube are in their early 30’s. Millennials are the first generation to care as much, if not more, about making money as we do making a difference. If you are graduating soon and want to wake up every morning knowing that you are not just making money but also making an impact, you might just find your place in the sun. And, if you are one of the rare few who are willing to throw your life into starting a solar business, then SfunCube can help you shine.

Solar entrepreneurs are in the fastest-growing energy industry in the world, and the reason solar will increasingly dominate is that it is a technology with an infinite source, not a fuel. Like any other technology, as the capacity and efficiency increases, the prices continue to fall. It is entrepreneurs, like those at SfunCube and others around the country and the world, that are accelerating the transition to a 100% renewable energy economy that is powered by sunshine. Will you be one of them?


Emily Kirsch is Co-Founder and CEO of SfunCube, the world’s only solar-exclusive incubator and accelerator. Prior to starting SfunCube with Sungevity Co-Founder and solar pioneer Danny Kennedy, Emily worked with Van Jones, who is a former green jobs advisor to President Obama, at the Ella Baker Center where she launched and lead the Green Jobs Corps, Oakland’s first workforce development initiative for renewable energy jobs. Emily launched and convened the Oakland Climate Action Coalition which wrote and secured passage of the most ambitious Climate Action Plan in the United States with unprecedented community participation. Emily partnered with the solar startup Mosaic, piloting their solar investment platform in Oakland. Emily is a New Leaders Council alumni and a Young Climate Leaders fellow. Her work has been featured in the book Clean Disruption by Stanford University professor Tony Seba, and has been featured in the New York Times, SF Business Times, and the Huffington Post. Emily was recently honored as the recipient of the 2015 East Bay Innovation Award for Cleantech.