The idea behind Cool Earth Solar is to remove any perceived limits on solar power. This means designing solar technology so that first, it competes economically against all forms of electricity generation and second, that there are no limiting bottlenecks in material or process that prevent the scaling up of solar as much as we want to address our energy needs.
“At Cool Earth Solar, we are reshaping solar technology, literally and philosophically. Our unique concentrated-photovoltaic (CPV) technology is designed to ‘tread lightly’ on the landscape and to deliver solar power at a low cost to the environment and in dollars and cents,” said CEO Rob Lamkin. Cool Earth Solar's CPV is an inflated solar concentrator made primarily of inexpensive and free materials. This design approach reduces material requirements as well cost and time.
Cool Earth Solar was introduced to the Silicon Valley Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at a seminar hosted at iGate, one of California’s Innovation Hubs (iHub). SBDCs provide a wide array of technical assistance to small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs. The SBDCs are made up of a unique collaboration of U.S. Small Business Administration, state and local government, and private sector funding.
The topic of the seminar was Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the federal government. SBIR is a highly competitive program that encourages small business to explore their technological potential and provides the incentive to profit from its commercialization. By including qualified small businesses in the nation's R&D arena, high-tech innovation is stimulated and the United States gains entrepreneurial spirit as it meets its specific research and development needs. By reserving a specific percentage of federal R&D funds for small business, SBIR protects the small business and enables it to compete on the same level as larger businesses.
At the event were two SBDC staff members, Charles Eason and Gerry Baranano, who have gone on to work closely with Cool Earth Solar. Charles helped Cool Earth Solar to organize and edit two of their winning SBIR proposals. Gerry has played a key role in helping them craft a go-to-market plan.
The two SBIR awards were both for Phase I awards. Phase I is the startup phase. Awards of up to $150,000 for approximately 6 months support exploration of the technical merit or feasibility of an idea or technology. Phase II awards of up to $1 million, for as many as 2 years, expand Phase I results. During this time, the R&D work is performed and the developer evaluates commercialization potential. Phase III is the period during which Phase II innovation moves from the laboratory into the marketplace. No SBIR funds support this phase.
In 2012 Cool Earth Solar was awarded an SBIR Phase I award from the US Department of Energy. This grant is to show the feasibility of a high concentrating version of their CPV technology using highly innovative optics and multi junction solar cells. With this funding, Cool Earth Solar has already created a working full-sized prototype that is out in the field and making electricity from sunlight.
The second SBIR grant was awarded in February, 2013 for a medium concentrating system that takes advantage of more commonly available silicon solar cells.
“A key challenge for innovative technology is the transition from laboratory to marketplace. Cool Earth Solar has a very important partnership with Sandia National Laboratories that enables the deployment of our CPV technology at Sandia for long term testing and validation. This is a huge step towards applying our solar technology to the nation’s energy needs at scale,” Lamkin said.
Sandia National Laboratories is a national resource. Cool Earth Solar is fortunate to be just three miles away. Cool Earth Solar partnered with Sandia because of their long history of solar expertise. This is the first agreement for developing and deploying innovative solar technology at this scale and scope at a national laboratory. Cool Earth Solar is the first partner to deploy at Sandia’s Clean Energy Demonstration Field.
Lamkin believes the key to Cool Earth Solar’s success thus far lies not only in government programs and strong partnerships, but like any other small business in the talented staff of 20 employees, “To deliver good technology to the market, you need to start with the right team. Do you have the right people? How can we best utilize each persons talents to fulfill the right role in the team?”