Lessons learned in scaling a social enterprise to solve energy poverty
On November 19, MaRS Mornings welcomed Jason Gray, the co-founder and CFO of SunFarmer. Jason didn’t start out to be an entrepreneur, but by following his interests and playing to his strengths, he evolved into one. Starting off his career with Cargill, Jason learned lots about executive management, but couldn’t find passion in the work. He moved to MNP, working with diverse clients before moving to Sun Edison, where he was the first Canadian employee of the young US startup. Through SunEdison, Jason had his first taste of startup life and was finally in a sector he cared deeply about.
After helping SunEdison grow rapidly, Jason saw an opportunity to combine his passion for renewable energy and desire for a startup culture through tackling energy poverty, a massive international issue. Over 2.4 billion people, or one-third of our global population, do not have reliable access to electricity. In excess of one billion people use health services without electricity, sometimes to treat the very respiratory illnesses caused by their reliance on wood, charcoal or animal waste to cook food.
SunFarmer was founded in 2013 with the goal to provide reliable and affordable energy to communities around the world. They currently have offices in Toronto, New York and Kathmandu. SunFarmer focuses on those areas of agriculture, health education and community infrastructure that are currently limited by a lack of reliable energy. Over the last two years, they have completed 75 projects (with 200 more project MOUs in place), 73 charging stations and over 1,000 solar lights.
As Jason shared his story, he repeatedly came back to four key messages:
- Startups never look like their initial idea: The initial idea for a startup is a starting point. But it’s getting out and talking to people that allows you to refine your idea and develop it into one that’s really interesting. Through Jason’s stories, it was evident that he spent a small amount of time declaring his plans and a far greater portion of time asking questions and listening to the answers. Through talking to stakeholders such as customers, investors, community members, mentors, manufacturers, politicians and engineers, you are able to discover a truly great idea.
- Be familiar with tech trends and other innovations: Entrepreneurs need to be curious and read and research different technologies and theories. By spending time with the right people in the right places, you’ll find avenues to bounce ideas around, combining different pieces of inspiration to create a truly valuable idea. Jason emphasized the need to “take a shower”—his version of taking a step back and letting the ideas mix and mature so that you can look at the big picture.
- Make something people want: To be successful, you need to commercialize something that people will actually pay for. By looking at what people are using now and which aspects are broken or not preforming optimally, you can generate ideas. Not sure how to do this? Take a luxury and make it a commodity. Or redefine the problem, or make things cheaper or easier. And, if all else fails, build something that you want—there may be others with the same or similar desires.
- Get married to your co-founder: Jason describes finding the right co-founder as being similar to that of finding a romantic partner: you’ll be settling in for the long haul, so make sure it’s the right person. A balance of skills is ideal, but above all, character and commitment are the most important. The relationship is going to take effort, sometimes lots of it, and persistence and patience are key. Take the time to find the right person and then make sure you’re both dedicated to seeing things through to the end.
Solar energy continues to get cheaper, while diesel is increasingly challenging to affordably access and, in many places of the world, an electricity grid is many years away, if at all. Jason and SunFarmer have learned invaluable lessons through their first projects and the company’s business model continues to evolve as the team finds better ways to provide reliable electricity to nations such as Nepal.
SunFarmer is a registered charity. If you’d like to give the gift of electricity this holiday season, you can do so here.
Photo credit: SunFarmer
Jennifer MinelliJennifer manages the accelerating ventures program at MaRS, supporting high-growth ventures in the cleantech, health and information & communications technology (ICT) sectors.See more…