Almost immediately after he chose his capstone project as senior business major at the Miami University of Ohio, Christopher Clark regretted his decision. Creating a business plan to develop a solar power product that would be given away to poverty-stricken people in third world countries couldn’t be a good business idea—could it? Only a few years later, Chris’ initially questionable business plan has become Sunflower Solutions, an innovative solar power company that could literally change the world—or at least the third world—by simplifying the science behind solar power to provide electricity to poor, developing communities around the world.
Tell me about your company, Sunflower Solutions. How did you come up with idea of simplified solar power?
One of my business classes in college had to partner with an engineering class of students who were building technical projects, and we had to create theoretical business plans for their finished products. The group that caught my eye was building a water pump that they were going to take to Africa and install in a village that didn’t have clean water. I initially regretted my decision because I realized that creating a business around giving away water pumps to people with no money wasn’t such a good idea. But I stuck with them and came up with a business plan to sell solar powered water pumps to nonprofits that do international aid activities. The idea for Sunflower Solutions really came from one little line in that plan, which said, “to keep costs down, I would have the solar water pumps designed in a way that the people themselves could turn the panels to face the sun to produce more power and keep costs as low as possible.”
How could your idea turn into a viable company if the product you create is meant for people who live in poverty?
We’re a for-profit company that sells to non-profits. For example, after the earthquake in Haiti, these networks of non-profit organizations raised millions of dollars to help Haiti. Regardless of what they were doing, they could lower costs and do their work better if they had electricity that was specifically designed to work in remote places. All the solar products on the market are designed for developed places like the United States and Western Europe. This solar power won’t work in places that don’t already have electricity. We designed our solar power technology from the standpoint that everything we create has to work in developing areas of the world. That mindset is unique for any energy company in the United States. Our goal is to have a smarter, simpler, more affordable way of providing power to people who need it.
So you’re saying no one had thought of doing that before?
Solar tracking as a concept has been around, but it had only been done with automatic systems that are expensive and have a lot of moving parts. But these systems are the last thing you would want to put in the middle of nowhere because once one part breaks, you have a dead system, and the nearest person who knows how to fix it may be thousands of miles away.
How does the science behind Sunflower Solutions’ solar power systems work?
The idea behind Sunflower Solutions was to mimic the benefits of solar tracking, but to simplify it. We got rid of the motors, computers, and photo sensors, and we gave individual people the ability to make those adjustments to the panels themselves. From the simplest level, solar tracking is really nothing more than having a rotation and a tilt, so we created a numbered, color-coded set of instructions that point the user to exactly where the sun is. All you have to do is rotate and tilt the system until it points to the correct set of numbers.
How successful has this technology been? Do you get to see the changes the technology makes when brought to these communities?
My favorite story ever is about when I installed my first manually tracking solar system in this village in the middle of nowhere, Kenya. Originally the plan was to just provide just a little bit of energy for a school—enough energy to power one light bulb in every classroom and a computer lab of four or five laptops. Before we installed the solar system at the school, the village’s nearest energy source was a three-hour walk down a mountain. But now they had an energy source that was right there. The community started a business to charge cell phones and give laptops on the weekends when the kids weren’t at school. Not only did the children and school benefit, the community benefited as well. The even cooler part is what the school is doing with the money they make—it’s buying food to give lunches to the orphan children who attend the school. It’s a special school because it doesn’t turn away any child who wants an education, so it has an unusually high proportion of orphan children whose parents have died of AIDS. That’s why I’m so passionate about bringing electricity to these areas. It does everything. Power is the foundation of our lives here in America, so when you bring it to any place that doesn’t have it, it never ceases to amaze me how much the energy does. Nothing goes to waste. The people use it for every little bit that they can.
What would you say to people who feel that it’s wrong to have a company profit from people who don’t have money in the first place?
I see it from both sides. A lot of people might make the wrongful assumption that if you’re doing something to save the world and make it a better place, then you can’t make money because making money doesn’t go hand in hand with doing good. I can understand that concept, but I’m not a millionaire, so the only way I can keep on doing this and helping people is by sustaining a business. My customers are like the church down the road that sponsors an orphanage in Africa. Right now, they don’t have anyone who’s catering to them, especially in the realm of providing electricity in these remote areas. Making enough money to keep my company going is the only way I can continue providing energy to people who need it. At the end of the day, I started Sunflower Solutions because there is just something to be said about doing something that is for the greater good.
It sounds like your solar power systems could really change the world. How can Daily BR!NK readers help you achieve your mission?
Our biggest challenge is, we have this wonderful product that has done nothing but great things… We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback from everyone we’ve worked with. But no one knows we exist. We need more exposure and customers. We need to get the word about Sunflower Solutions out there!