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DOE Taps Techpreneurs to Boost Solar’s Competitiveness

By Michael Contreras, 2012–14 Executive Branch Fellow, DOE SunShot Initiative

Solar is a relatively new industry that holds much promise, but is hampered by issues including cost competitiveness with other energy sources. I had the pleasure of helping create and launch SunShot Catalyst in May – an innovative U.S. Department of Energy prize contest designed to support early-stage entrepreneurs solving solar’s most pressing problems. Through Catalyst, communities of innovators use software, data, algorithms, and automation to drive down non-hardware solar soft costs – like permitting, financing, and customer acquisition – that today make up more than half of the cost of a solar electricity system.

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Ammar Qusaibaty, Elaine Ulrich, Craig Connelly, Mike Contreras. | Josh Huneycutt

SunShot Catalyst takes a new approach in support of the SunShot Initiative’s aim to boost solar deployment by making it cost competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of this decade. Catalyst leverages the power of the crowd to generate ideas on an open innovation online platform and builds a super-community of entrepreneurs, innovators, and data pros to work together to create solar business solutions and products in a healthy system of competition. To date, more than 130 “problem statements” have been submitted – for instance, the need for consumers to find reputable solar installers to the lack of options for solar system third party maintenance.

Now, up to 20 teams of innovators will compete for a chance to win $25,000 in software development services to develop a prototype of their product through a new partnership between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Topcoder. Up to five of these teams will go on to receive up to $100,000 of seed funding in the form of non-dilutive cash prizes. By the end of the first round, we foresee awarding winning contestants a total $1,000,000, including about $500,000 in cash prizes. Catalyst is currently at its halfway point, nearing announcement in mid-December of the 20 teams eligible for prototype funding. 

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Elaine Ulrich, Ammar Qusaibaty, Craig Connelly, Mike Contreras. | Josh Huneycutt

To build awareness of the prize challenge, we made great strides to reach innovators from outside the solar industry.  We leveraged social media, software and technology community events and conferences, and media relations to engage and build our Catalyst community. So far, we estimate we’ve reached over five million people via Twitter with approximately 11% of our active members coming from social media. To date, we have over 5,300 active members in our community responsible for submitting more than 130 problem statements, and nearly 1400 votes from our online community.  SunShot has enjoyed media coverage including TechCrunch, support from the Secretary of Energy, and mentions by the White House and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog.

The successful launch of Catalyst can be attributed to the bold, entrepreneurial culture at the SunShot Initiative. This culture is a magnet for fellows and includes Kelly Knutsen (2009-10 Congressional Fellow), Shree Mishra (2014-15 Executive Branch Fellow, DOE), David Rench-McCauley (2014-15 Executive Branch Fellow, DOE), Lidija Sekaric (2009-11 Executive Branch Fellow, DOE), Lenny Tinker (2011-13 Executive Branch Fellow, DOE), and Elaine Ulrich (2008-10 Congressional Fellow). Since I began my fellowship at SunShot in September, it has been a wild ride cofounding a new project and working with an amazing team, especially Ammar Qusaibaty, Craig Connelly, Victor Kane, and Elaine Ulrich.