22 Dec 2017, 09:36 — 9 min read
Living in different countries can be instrumental in developing a global vision and perspective. Sharat Kaul grew up in the United States and India and has worked in the Middle East as well. He developed the desire to be an entrepreneur after studying Engineering and Business and had a strong inclination to work in the energy sector towards the betterment of the environment.
Seeing India as an emerging market, he set up Solar-Apps Energy Pvt. Ltd. in Bangalore in 2008 and began engineering innovative solutions and providing financing for projects with a view of a long-term return. His team is motivated by the desire to innovate, grow, and make an impact in the fight against global warming. His company has the distinction of having developed a solar panel that works on water.
In conversation with GlobalLinker (GL), Sharat Kaul (SK) shares his business journey.
GL: Tell us about your business.
SK: Solar-Apps was started in December of 2008 as a system integrator and an EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction). We are now an engineering and finance company. We’re using the latest technologies and financing solar energy products.
I was born and brought up in the United States. I spent 9 years in school there and then travelled around until I finished school in Pune. I did my undergraduate in Bangalore. After that, I completed my Bachelors of Science and Electrical Engineering at University of Texas at Dallas. I did my MBA at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
My whole education has been in semiconductor chip design. But when I graduated, it was clear that my path was that of an entrepreneur. Semiconductor technology is more or less on the same lines as solar technologies where you go from sub-micron low voltage technologies to much higher voltage to power electronics.
With the infinite amount of sun and a high demand for energy, I felt that renewable technologies would be necessary especially with global warming and the need to reduce fossil fuels.
Our team currently consists of 8 people. We subcontract our non-core businesses and outsource them. These are accounting, legal and IT. Our core business is engineering, project management and technology and making our systems durable and reliable and better than the rest. Keeping our team motivated is not difficult because we are in an emerging market that is seeing constant change and there is always something new to learn. The learning process keeps our team motivated along with solving the technical challenges. We are all very conscious of the environment and the planet.
GL: What is the USP of your business?
SK: Rather than doing system integration and the EPC approach our USP is through technology, prototyping and financing. For example, in prototyping we are releasing state-of-the art solar panels which are 80% lighter and don’t require steel to set up and can be put up like stickers.
We can place them on curved surfaces, vertical facades. We are looking at areas like railways and airports to put them on.
We’re focusing on lithium iron phosphate batteries for homes and industrial use and even for balancing of the grid. On the inverter side we’re building an in-house controller where we can take an off-the shelf inverter and build a touch screen interface seamlessly. They can go from an off-grid system to an on-grid system. All the data is uploaded to a stem from which they can do data analytics. That will help generate more power and savings.
GL: What are the challenges you have faced in establishing your business?
SK: The primary challenge was identification. Asking the questions — who are we, where we want to be, and how do we maintain a sustainable competitive advantage in the market. The market was emerging, and the costs were coming down in the solar industry. However, the barrier to entry was very low. We were trying to determine where and how we could be different. In any solar panel installation, it comes down to the panel and the off-grid inverter. We asked ourselves what systems we could add to improve our energy yields and high yields to our customers.
Many customers need financing options. We structure power purchase agreements. We set up the systems at our cost and they pay us a power price which is less than their electricity bill for a period of 15-20 years. We figured this combination of offerings would give us a first-mover’s advantage and differentiation.
GL: What are some of the milestones of your business?
SK: We have a number of achievements. We have done over 50 projects all over India. We’ve done solar installations for hospitals and microfinance institutions. We’re marketing and selling our all in one LED streetlight which is changing how we do street lighting. We are also doing power purchase agreements and financing and building projects. We are moving on to more innovative solutions where are identifying and lead on solar panels on large bodies water. Water cools the panels down which helps prevent energy erosion. Flexible solar panels allow us to put panels on curved surfaces. We can integrate solar panels into the project in a way that they can blend and not get damaged. We are looking to lead with innovation.
We’ve succeeded in attracting a big clientele. Some of our customers include Toyota, Bhartiya Builders, Brigade Builders. We did a proof of concept project for SLK IT Software Parks. We’re expanding in to the middle east. We offer them an elevated structure with solar panels on them. This does many things. It uses unused roof space and creates a shed which gives shade. It provides protection from rain. This is a value addition for car dealerships.
Hospitals also need solar energy. We have worked with a hospital in Bangalore. We have worked with educational institutions in Tamil Nadu as well. We are looking at manufacturing companies with high roof space with high usage of power. These are companies we can help with their electricity bills and give them savings.
GL: Do you believe that the ‘ease of doing business’ in Bangalore has improved?
SK: Bangalore has become an IT hub. SMEs are doing well in an environment that has grown over the last 10 years. Although Bangalore is a hub for SMEs, it doesn’t mean that other cities should be discounted.
GL: What role do you feel GlobalLinker plays in connecting & assisting SMEs?
SK: GlobalLinker’s offerings and partnerships with travel, loan and IT service providers are complimentary to the business of running an SME. It’s an international platform making it a great place to network. It's different from LinkedIN because of the value-services it offers in terms of collaboration.
GL: What is your big business dream?
SK: We’re not entirely motivated by money. We want to make a difference. The projects which we bid on today and will continue to bid on are large projects. Where we see ourselves is a company that is building innovative applications. The name ‘Solar-apps’ comes from Solar which is the sun and apps which is applications.
What we’re aiming to do is creating applications for the sun. They could help with lighting. They could be panels on water. They could be systems that used to run on the traditional grid that move to solar. We want to make things mobile and remove the need for wires. I also envision an era in which wireless charging is going to be a huge factor. We’re getting involved with electric vehicles now. We’re doing this with the battery swapping technology where in India it seems likely that batteries will need to be changed in ten seconds on the road when the need arises.
GL: What is your message to aspiring entrepreneurs?
SK: Be realistic. Don’t build something and hope that customers come. Find a customer and then build your product. Make sure you have enough cash flow so you’re in a strong position financially. Don’t be afraid of failure. If you’re not failing you’re not doing your job. The failures are going to mark your character and help you grow. Be patient, have faith and go with your gut feel. You are the best source of advice and the best resource for your company.
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