Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Recognising Entrepreneurial Opportunities – Solar energy on a pay as you go basis!

This note is based on three talks given by Prof Sir Richard Friend, Dr Simon-Bransfield Garth and Dr Seena Rejal. They talked about research into long chain molecules lead to spotting florescent properties of plastics which in turn lead to semi-conducting inks! A first patent and followed by publication in Nature in 1990. This lead to a startup called Cambridge Display Technologies (eventually sold to Sumitomo and we now see products such as screens on mobile phones). Then followed Plastic Logic moving thin film transistors from experiments in the lab into a potentially big market opportunity. And most recently Organic Photovoltaic Cells giving us the hope for ultra cost effective solar cells to maybe finally harness the energy of the sun at affordable costs. That was the easy bit – taking only 20 years of world-class research!! This is clearly a technology push opportunity in line with two scholarly observations. The first by Schumpeter who talks about entrepreneurs bring us creative destruction and the creation of opportunities through invention. I am most reminded of Thomas Edison’s long work to finally give us usable light bulbs – which have been transformative. Sir Richard was followed by Simon Bransfield-Garth – the serial CEO brought in by Richard to take the research from the lab and turn it into products and services that customers will pay for. One of the most significant lessons here has been the truly creative and adaptive behavior of the team to continuously modify their understanding of the markets and to develop new business models, create new supply chains and funding approaches. Probably the most significant step forward to commercialization was the creation of a pay as you go business model. Simon and his team developed a box (Indigo) that combines mobile phone pay as you go technology with a switch that connect s to sources of solar energy to enable people to make micropayments to gather up energy to recharge mobile phones and get LED lighting for 2 – 3 hours each evening. This model and the technology has enabled users (presently in Africa at the bottom of the so called economic pyramid) to get 2 – 3 hours extra per day of their lives for half the cost of filthy kerosene lamps. Game changing strategy as a result of a changed business model. Having said that this is not entirely new (anymore) because organisations such as SELCO in India are also doing the same thing. And Bunker Roy from Barefoot College is addressing the same problem with his own model of engaging grandmothers to earn livelihoods However, The Big vision of the Eight19 proposal is two fold. First get deep penetration of the Indigo box with built in capability for what Simon described as an energy escalator. In other words as solar capability increases so there would be greater potential for increased wattage to the off-grid community. And this would give scope for helping people to move fro one light bulb to say 4 – 6 lights, increased number of phones being charged and new devices coming on such as radio, TV, sewing machines and so forth. All these devices need reliable sources of energy and as societal aspirations increase the energy escalator can play a huge role. The second part of the vision which makes the whole thing more compelling is to see and understand the transformative impact of such technology to millions of people who live around the equator. They gain more productive hours per day, gain access to more modern devices and appliances and can feel part of the modern world. To succeed with this vision requires the development of an entire set of systems – whether you call it an ecosystem, supply chains, stakeholders or whatever – the team has to persuade multiple agencies, individuals and others that “this is the way to go”. How to move solar from a subsidy dependent sector competing with vested interests in kerosene and other dirty fuels into a sustainable technology that people (in their millions) would be prepared to buy. Our final speaker for the evening (Seena Rejal) helped paint this picture by talking about how Eight19 had given him a huge potential to leverage his networks and passion for sustainability to bring a buzz and energy through guerilla marketing efforts to the most senior decision makers. A key tactic was to get the Indigo box into the hands of senior policy makers, industrialists and others. The team also entered and won competitions thus creating greater awareness of their product and service. They raised money from private investors, government grants, and from charitable trusts. It was the vision of alleviating people from darkness that has won them these prizes. So – what is opportunity recognition? Especially for young graduates? We had a brief view of this from Seena – who had played a role at Eight19. He summed up why he joined and what the opportunities were for him. What we learn about opportunity recognition is that it is not a single cognitive construct – it is something that emerges! And means different things to each of the players – not unlike the story defining an elephant from the perspective of 6 blind men! Slide deck is available on: (slide share)

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