CxO Spotlight: John Baumstark CEO, Suniva
1. What have been the deterrents to solar energy to date, and how is Suniva’s technology considered a breakthrough?
Cost perception has always been the biggest issue with solar energy. Many believe that it is more expensive than burning fossil fuels. Historically, that was true. Today, depending on your location, solar is extremely cost effective. At high usage times of the day, when the sun is shining, office buildings are full, and air conditioners and computers are running at full speed, utilities will charge their peak rates. It is at these times – when energy companies are scrambling to supply enough power – that solar makes the most sense, for a couple of reasons. It’s free, it’s everywhere, it can be consumed where it is generated and there are zero emissions. Additionally, it can be a source of revenue. If you don’t use the power you generate, you can often sell it back to the electric company.
Today, the technology is much better than it was ten years ago. Suniva has developed technology that allows customers to generate more energy per square inch on the photovoltaic cell than any other solar energy provider – meaning you get more electricity from the same amount of sunlight.
We believe the key to mass adoption of solar energy is contingent upon the right mix of efficiency and low cost. Our current products and ongoing research are all focused on improving those numbers and making solar energy a logical solution for growing energy demand.
2.Green companies are very hot right now. What will we see as this industry continues to take shape in the U.S.?
I think we are in a revolution and there is no stopping it. One of the biggest reasons is evident to anyone who drives a car. Everyone is talking about their gas mileage these days. People who never worried about it before are now taking public transportation to get back and forth to work. High energy prices are serving as our wakeup call.
At the same time, I look at my children and their generation, who are extremely energy conscious. My kids recycle everything. We see people their age around the world starting conservation clubs at schools – they are more committed to taking care of the planet than we ever were. Then, I see my friends who have even younger children. We are raising a generation of consumers that will not tolerate some of the things we tolerate today. They believe that “green” is the only way to think about energy and that we have start behaving differently.
There will be short-term hardships to deal with as our society adjusts, but in the long term, I believe we’re heading for something great. The green revolution is here to stay.
3.Why is Atlanta an ideal location for Suniva and similar companies?
Suniva was formed as a spin out from the University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaics at Georgia Tech, but we could have located our manufacturing facility anywhere in the world. We chose Norcross for several reasons.
First, we are constantly looking for highly trained scientists and technicians. The Atlanta Metro area is a technology hub that attracts the individuals we need. We also work closely with the many technical colleges and universities in the area as we recruit new talent.
Second, we are a global business, with customers in Asia, Europe and North America. We rely on both the Atlanta airport for easy business travel and the deepwater port in Savannah for overseas shipping.
Atlanta has everything our business needs.
4.Suniva has received more than $55 million in venture capital funding to date. What advice do you have for others seeking similar investments?
You need a differentiated story. Can you articulate why you are different than everyone else out there and then clearly show how you are going to execute against your business vision?
Just as important as a great idea, though, is a great team. Investors and venture capitalists are placing bets – they want to be sure they’re betting on the right horse. If you can prove that you have the right vision, the right product or idea and the right team, then it is much easier for them to make that investment.
It also helps if you can prove, either through potential or actual customers, that someone is willing to pay for the products you will eventually produce.
5. What do you personally enjoy about living in Atlanta? Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
I’ve lived in a lot of places around the U.S., but I find the people in Atlanta to be the nicest and most hospitable. I love outdoor activities such as golf, tennis, running and cycling and the weather in Atlanta is great for all these sports year round.