Earlier this month, Ryan Wright traveled to the campus of a small, private school in northeast Georgia. He spent the day there, installing a custom-made solar-powered charging station for student and faculty cell phones, and then returned to his office in Greentown Labs, a clean tech incubator in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Wright, E'09, is the young entrepreneur behind Sol Power, a five-person startup aimed at harnessing the sun's energy to recharge mobile devices while their users go about their business. Since founding the company in 2012, he has rented his stations to the organizers of dozens of outdoor events, from Massachusetts to Delaware, and is now working with customers to place stations in city parks, at hotels, and on college campuses.
“No one has ever before done this on a large scale,” said Wright, who studied industrial engineering and business administration at Northeastern. “It's new and exciting, giving us the opportunity to generate awareness of the potential for off-the-grid energy solutions.”
Each station comprises a single solar panel and 15 lock boxes, which are outfitted with a universal adapter befitting iPhones, Androids, and other mobile devices. Wright sells ad space to sponsor his rental stations, and has thus far collaborated with a software-consulting firm, a do-it-yourself web design company, and the jeweler Alex and Ani.
His business plan includes one short-term goal—growing the rental business to generate short-term cash flow—and two long-term goals: boosting direct sales and expanding into the developing markets. “In the next two to three years, we see global expansion being the foremost driver of our business in terms of revenue,” Wright said, noting his interest in selling his charging stations to customers in countries like India. “That's where we see the most value for end users and for our customers.”
His startup strategy began to evolve in 2013, when he connected with IDEA, Northeastern's student-run venture accelerator. Since then, IDEA has awarded Wright $20,000 in gap funding, which he used to help manufacture the charging stations, and hooked him up with a mentor named Scott Goldthwaite, the senior vice president of operations for ROAM, the leading mobile commerce provider.
“The access to mentors and advisers has been equally important as the funding,” Wright said. “Scott has been very helpful in terms of brainstorming ideas and offering feedback on our business model.” The best piece of advice the fledgling entrepreneur has received from Goldthwaite, he said, is to “keep my eye on scaling the business and ensure that the decisions I make now will allow me to scale up in the future.”
Sol Power is currently one of some 30-odd startups competing in the Northeast region of the CleanTech Open, the world's largest competitive clean tech accelerator program. The founder of the winning startup—which will be announced by the end of the month, following a series of presentations—will receive $20,000 and then travel to California in November to compete for the $200,000 national prize.
In preparation for his presentation, Wright has received mentorship from three successful businessmen in the clean tech sector. “Winning the money would be great,” he said, “but the knowledge I've gained by participating in this program is what will really move this business forward.”
One of Wright's most valuable assets outside of his mentors is Nick Yavorsky, E'15, who is working on co-op for Sol Power through Northeastern's subsidized co-op program. The program was established in 2011 through a donation from Northeastern alumnus John Hatsapolous, E'59, and provides a limited number of subsidies to selected startups each co-op cycle.
Yavorsky has participated in nearly every aspect of the business since joining the team in July, from deploying stations in the field to creating computer-aided designs of the station's next iteration in the lab. “I'm used to being on the tech side of things,” he said, “but here I've had the opportunity to develop an understanding of how to run a business.”
Wright's understanding of how to run a startup grew out of his own co-op experiences, which comprised jobs at a large defense contractor, a medical device company, and an assembly factory. All in all, he learned the ins and outs of manufacturing operations and developed a strategy for managing his relationships with customers and employees. “My co-ops,” he said, “were absolutely invaluable to my development as both a leader and an entrepreneur.”