Last Friday, Google for Entrepreneurs’ Black Founders Exchange Program crowned Durham, NC-based startup Optimal Solar as the winner of their pitch competition held at North Carolina tech hub American Underground. At the helm of the solar energy technology startup is Reginald Parker, Ph.D., an MIT-educated engineer that focused his studies on biological polymers.
Optimal Solar’s flagship product, VIA, splits incoming sunlight into chips, separating out the infrared light that often causes current solar energy capture methods to lose up to 25 percent of the heat. It then converts both the visible and the infrared light into electricity.
The dual-axis tracking system helps create 40 percent more solar inputs per operating footprint, at 30 percent lower costs than traditional methods.
“One of the biggest things we ended up caring about is, what’s the level cost of electricity, because that defines your profit,” Parker tells Hypepotamus.
The startup is currently in talks with the City of Atlanta about adding power at an affordable rate to a landfill site, a project that could yield $2 million in profit once completed by the end of 2019. Parker shares that the project would save Atlanta $23.7 million over 25 years.
“The city wants to grow our business enterprise as we are considering putting our manufacturing capacity there, and they believe that a project like a landfill is a great way to do it,” says Parker. “We are currently looking at ways to follow the rules and meet the needs of the city and its mandates.”
Their product-based revenue comes from selling the systems to developers, utilities and municipalities that are interested in making the switch to solar.
Parker attributes his pitch competition win to refining his value proposition during the week-long Exchange bootcamp. He says that, as a technical founder, he previously found it difficult to veer away from the tech features of the startup.
“One of the things I’ve learned from the program and put right into action was communicating why this is important to the customer as quickly as possible. Your value proposition drives your product and that has to be clear, concise and succinct,” says Parker. “You can’t spend as much time on the technical aspect, because you have to win hearts and minds in three minutes and the only way to do that is through the value proposition.”
But Parker was to receive another big win that day, as well. One of the judges was Brittany Davis, Director of Deal Flow at Backstage Capital, a VC firm focused on underrepresented founders. Following the pitch, Davis offered Optimal Solar the first spot in their recently-announced accelerator program.
Announced in early September, the three-month Backstage Accelerator aims to assist companies led by underrepresented founders. Four cohorts, each with six companies, will kick off in Philadelphia, London, Los Angeles, and a fourth city to be announced soon. The accelerator will invest $100,000 in each company in exchange for five percent equity.
The California-based venture capital fund has invested more than $4 million in 100 companies led by underrepresented founders so far, a milestone they reached two years before their 2020 goal date. They also announced a $36 million fund earmarked for black female founders earlier this year.
Parker is still weighing his options between the cities and will wait until the results of a public vote for the fourth accelerator location comes to fruition before deciding which city will be best to grow his company.
Up next, the team is seeking a $500,000 seed round to scale up product manufacturing and move their focus to selling.
“We have our nose down to the ground for the next three months to raise the capital for the last piece… we can put this on the market and start ending energy poverty, which is our slogan. We want to address the energy needs that are in Latinx and Caribbean countries as well as west African countries, but we’re going to start at home, inside of the U.S. first, and then branch out,” Parker says.