SfunCube Gets Solar Start-Ups Rolling


Oakland, Calif.-based SfunCube wants to be a different kind of business incubator. Some entrepreneurial support programs might house cupcake bakers and software companies in the same building and mandate that business owners attend classes and prepare a presentation before graduating. SfunCube accepts only solar companies and does not make many demands of its early-stage businesses.

‘We looked at other programs, and they cover so many areas – greentech and efficiency and electric vehicles,’ says Emily Kirsch, CEO and co-founder of SfunCube. ‘They were broad, and they don't go very deep, and they do not cultivate the level of expertise we need in the industry.’

SfunCube, which launched last year, offers two programs: an incubator and an accelerator.
Incubator start-ups rent office space and share common areas, such as conference rooms. Of the 12 companies currently housed at SfunCube's LEED-certified building, eight are incubator companies.

‘As long as it seems like a cultural fit, and they can pay the rent, they are accepted,’ Kirsch says.

The accelerator companies undergo a more intensive application process. The accelerator is a nine-month program in which the start-ups receive free rent; $10,000 of investment; and free business advice from lawyers, management consultants and marketing firms. Unlike other similar programs, Kirsch says, SfunCube assigns no mandatory classes or homework.

‘We decided not to take a boot camp approach,’ she says. ‘We looked at that, and there are valuable pieces, but we asked entrepreneurs and they said, 'We dropped out of college. The last thing we want is school.'’

The SfunCube experience is designed to be more representative of the real world than the boot camp approach. Instead of developing a presentation for one end-of-session pitch day, small-business owners at SfunCube can network often.

‘Almost every day we are bringing in investors,’ Kirsch says. ‘Also, the incubator and accelerator are in the same space, so companies in the accelerator that are early stage are surrounded by companies that are further along, so there is this mentor effect that happens naturally.’
The companies currently in the SfunCube portfolio include Mosaic, the crowd funding firm; the California Center for Sustainable Energy, which administers the California Solar Initiative and other programs; and SolarNexus, which provides software and other services for contractors. Other companies, such as Standard Microgrid, are working on setting up solar projects in Africa, but most of the SfunCube companies focus on lowering the soft costs for solar.

One company, BrightCurrent, provides field marketing services for solar companies, such as setting up sales kiosks in hardware stores. The company has just under 100 employees nationwide.

‘We carry out the retail campaign for other bigger solar companies,’ says John Bourne, BrightCurrent's CEO and co-founder. ‘Our job is to help retailers profit from offering solar. If they can do that, a lot more retailers are going to jump into solar.’

Bourne says the firm decided to join the accelerator program because he liked the energy of the place: ‘That sort of buzz you get when you are in there is incredible.’

SfunCube's selection committee consists of Tony Seba, an energy lecturer at Stanford University; Tom Dinwoodie, co-founder of the integrator PowerLight Corp.; and Alec Guettel, co-founder of the installer Sungevity Inc. Another co-founder of Sungevity, Danny Kennedy, is co-founder of SfunCube. The committee is selective with the accelerator participants because SfunCube invests in the early-stage companies.

‘Some venture capitalists take the spray-and-pray approach,’ Kirsch explains. ‘They invest in 100 companies, and if two of them succeed, that's fine – but for us it's not. Our vision is making sure people in the U.S. and around the world can have solar.’

SfunCube also earns revenue from the rent the incubator companies pay and has investment funding from angel investors.

Kirsch says SfunCube has been approached about letting the committee and the business owners be filmed for a reality TV show, similar to the ABC show Shark Tank. The executives declined.

‘We are California laid back,’ Kirsch says. ‘There is no drama.’

For more information, on SfunCube, click here.

Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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