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Bay Area solar entrepreneur works to woo architects, builders

Louis Hansen, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

FREMONT, Calif. -- Suvi Sharma came to entrepreneurship early.

Sharma started a nonprofit while at Northwestern University dedicated to teaching and mentoring students in poor Chicago neighborhoods.

Along with a desire to better his community, he said, "I realized I liked running things."

After a few post-college years doing consulting and banking, in 2003 Sharma joined a solar manufacturing startup in New Mexico called Solaria. He became CEO and moved the fledgling company to the Bay Area.

During two different stints as CEO, Sharma has helped remake the company into a manufacturer of high-efficiency panels with architectural design in mind. The company manufactures some of its products in Fremont, with others made in Korea. The private company has received about $190 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

It also developed and spun off a manufacturer of solar tracking devices, NEXTracker, which was later sold for $330 million.

Architectural solar products make up a small but emerging market -- finding new building features and spaces to embed high-efficiency solar cells and generate electricity. Tesla, for example, is reaching into the space with solar roofs.

Solaria has focused recently on building solar cells that easily embed into windows. The cells also allow for clear vision through a window -- think open blinds -- while generating power.

The cell design allows the glass makers to place the solar technology inside traditional windows in different patterns and profiles. Solaria has deals with major glass manufacturers Pilkington and Asahi Glass to integrate Solaria cells into commercial and residential windows.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: After college, you spent time in India?

A: When I was graduating from college, most people were going to either graduate school or consulting firms or investment banks. It just didn't appeal to me.

I was very interested in Gandhi and what he had done. I went back to India on a one-way ticket to do rural development work ... but also to connect to India. I had lost touch with it. My native language was Hindi, but I had forgotten to really read and write it. I re-learned that and reconnected. I was there for about 10 months.

I stayed in the villages for about three months. People had literally nothing, very little, in terms of physical goods. The life was hard but (they were) really wonderful people. I helped some nonprofits there.

I realized that India didn't seem to want another Gandhi. They wanted another Bill Gates.

Q: How did you find the solar industry?

A: Given my roots in social benefit areas, I wanted to stay in business, but I wanted to do something that could be used for good in the world. Solar just felt like the right thing, when I looked at the numbers.

Probably the real answer is, I think one time my wife said, "Why don't you just get into the solar industry?" I thought that was a great idea.

I was looking at starting something on my own, but Solaria was a very small company at the time. I got to know some of the founders. (It was) literally a 2 to 3 person company in New Mexico.

First thing I did was to move the company out here. We set up in Berkeley.

Q: Have you seen a growing market for architectural solar products?

A: It's a very small market. The reason is, there just aren't many good solutions out there. Secondly, it takes time. (The construction industry) is a conservative industry. It's complex.

You can go to the building product suppliers, but then they're not the ones making the decision. They have to convince the architects. The architects can spec it in, but then, there's the engineering construction firm that has to approve it, because they're the ones that are going to be wiring everything and be liable. And then finally the building owner and developer has to OK it from the cost standpoint. It's a complex ecosystem.

The traditional way to do solar in buildings, if you don't do what we're doing, is you have these square cells and you space them out and you have a checkerboard pattern.

(But with our products) even though you have 50 percent coverage of cells, you can see through it. I've had leading architects who have been looking through it and asking, "Where is the solar panel?"

Q: One of the biggest, recent announcements in architectural solar cells has been the Tesla solar roof. What does it do for the market?

A: It's definitely a beautiful product. I like it. It shows that you can still be innovative in this business. You can create something desirable in solar.

In many ways, what Tesla and Elon Musk are doing in solar, at least from a marketing standpoint, is exactly what Solaria is doing. The difference is, we're very focused on it. We don't have to make Model 3 cars. We can just focus on solar. We're plowing ahead and scaling up that.

Q: The solar industry faces some political uncertainties. How is the environment for a company the size of Solaria?

A: It's the best of times and the worst of times.

The industry just continues to grow. Solar this year, not only in the U.S., but globally, has become the largest form of new power generation capacity being installed worldwide. In many ways, it's the best of times.

Certainly, the presidential administration that is really somewhere between not supportive to very pro-fossil fuels is not helpful on a grand political level.

But at the end of the day, people are making the decision based on their checkbook, not on policy.

Suvi Sharma

Position: CEO, Solaria, a solar manufacturer with 35 employees

Hometown: Born in India, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Grew up in Cleveland, Tenn.

Education: Northwestern University, B.S. in mathematics and statistics

Previous jobs: Founder, COMPASS, a nonprofit started at college bringing university students to teach in poor Chicago neighborhoods. Analyst for a Duracell battery factory in Tennessee, using the money to pay off student loans. Associate at Geocapital Partners, a venture capital firm in New York.

Family: Wife Meena, son and daughter

Home: Oakland, Calif.

Age: 43

Five things about Suvi Sharma

1. His parents, Vijai and Sudha, brought his family over from India when Suvi was 8. After they retired, they moved to Oakland, just a few houses away from their son.

2. Two recent, favorite books: "A Fine Balance," a novel by Rohinton Mistry set in India, and "1491," about the Americas before Columbus arrived by Charles C. Mann.

3. Originally studied artificial intelligence at college, but had moral dilemmas about the field creating software and robots to mimic human behavior.

4. He enjoys hiking with his family among the redwood groves.

5. He spent 10 months in India after graduation, visiting small towns and working with local nonprofits to study political participation.

(c)2017 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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