Five Tips to Win the American-Made Solar Prize
Andy Barnes, Director of Policy & Communications, CEBN
The Department of Energy launched the American-Made Solar Prize in 2018 to strengthen U.S. solar manufacturing. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) administers the initiative, which has carried out three previous rounds. Each round has doled out $3 million in prize money to solar entrepreneurs across the country. The competition is divided into three stages (Ready, Set, and Go), and at each stage a dwindling pool of winners splits $1 million in prize winnings. Winners also have access to NREL resources and the American-Made Network.
The fourth round of the competition kicks off this week with the deadline for applications for the first stage of the competition on October 8 at 3 pm ET. CEBN held a webinar this week featuring three previous winners of the competition, (if you missed it, a recording is available here).
Panelists included Tom Keister, CEO & Founder of Resilient Power Systems, a leading provider of innovative energy solutions to electric utilities and their customers. Resilient Power Systems got its start working on projects through the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program (an entity the CEBN has long supported!). Tom and his team competed in the American-Made Solar Prize round 2, which concluded in August. Resilient Power Systems took home the Grand Prize.
Adam Winsor the Co-founder & Creative Director Virginia-based Asoleyo Solar also participated. Asoleyo uses an “outside the box” approach to the issue that 40% of those who opt out of purchasing solar have cited aesthetics as a reason not to commit. Adam’s firm has designed solar PV panels that go beyond the familiar grid pattern of strictly perpendicular lines. Asoleyo’s panels utilize symmetry, rhythm, and line to develop beautiful customizable patterns that are pleasing to the eye. Adam and his team were finalists in round two.
Jennie Yoshimoto, Founder of Terra Solar, rounded out the panel of previous competitors. Based in San Antonio, Terra Solar offers DIY solar products that enable two people to erect a solar panel rig in three hours. The setup doubles as a canopy that provides shade and opens areas on properties that wouldn’t otherwise enable space for a solar panel. Terra Solar was a semi-finalist in round three of the challenge.
The panelists offered their best advice on how to put together a competitive application and take advantage of the resources offered by the challenge at each stage of the competition. Here are five tips you should follow to win.
1: Connections can be as valuable as prize money: Adam highlighted how the connections he made across the American-Made Network helped him hone his idea and business plan. His top tip for competitors? “Don’t be afraid to reach out to connectors.” He suggests reaching out to as many as you can and be persistent if you don’t hear back. Explore the network partners here.
2: Customer discovery is crucial: Jennie highlighted the importance of really focusing in on identifying your customers: “Customer discovery is not just critical for this competition but for developing your product overall. As we were doing customer discovery we made excellent partnerships, found great resources, different grants, incubators and accelerators, as we were talking to people.” Letters of support from some of these partners helped Terra Solar advance in the competition. Jennie also referenced the NSF i-Corps program helped her learn how to best talk to potential customers.
3: Substance over style: Focus on the idea first. Slick presentation and emphasis on aesthetics of a video are secondary. Hone the idea. Research if your solution already exists, someone else has already done it, or if there are any similar ideas already out there. Think through the technical feasibility of the idea, consult others (while protecting your intellectual property), and be prepared to pivot in subsequent rounds of the competition.
4: Apply! No idea is too early: Feedback from expert reviewers is valuable in and of itself. You can always reapply with their feedback in mind. If your proposal is not successful, don’t hesitate to apply again, after really taking the judges’ feedback into account. Terra Solar applied in round one of the competition and utilized feedback from an unsuccessful application on its round three application!
5: When appropriate, identify partners to develop pilot projects: Tom and his team’s strategy folded the prize winning into its pilot project strategy. Resilient Power Systems’ approach to pilot projects involved utilizing prize winnings to help support the capital costs for potential pilot projects. He communicated this commitment to potential partners. This outreach alone helped RPS secure pilot projects.