In 2013, they won the renewables track of the MIT Clean Energy Prize. In 2014, they got the exciting opportunity to work with Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems to build their prototype tiles. They also are a member company at Greentown Labs in Somerville, MA and Urban Future Lab in Brooklyn, NYC.
I recently talked with Senthil Balasubramanian, one of the founders of Sistine Solar, about what the future holds and the exciting new projects that Sistine Solar is working on now.
How we met and how Sistine was born
Sistine Solar was started by Ido Salama and Senthil Balasubramanian while they were classmates at MIT Sloan’s MBA program. Senthil’s experience in the solar startup space, having developed greenfield solar projects in emerging markets, complemented Ido’s eye for product design. Over a few casual conversations at MIT’s popular Muddy Charles Pub, they discovered their shared passion to drive the world to 100% clean energy within their lifetime. They believed that for that to happen, solar needs to speak not just to people’s minds, but also to their hearts, and that happens at the intersection of form and function. In short, they wanted to make solar capture the world’s imagination.
As Senthil says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem will look like a nail. The solar sector has, for very good reasons, focused on utility. But what if you used different tools? What if you took a design-first approach to solar? The possibilities we see are infinite and truly jaw-dropping! Just as intelligent design revolutionized the cellphone industry and catapulted cellphone adoption, so we see solar on the cusp of a massive design revolution.”
How the Sistine team was formed
To make their mission come true, Ido and Senthil carefully built a close-knit team. Jonathan Mailoa, a PhD candidate at MIT’s Photovoltaics Research Lab, is at the cutting edge of solar technology. They met Jonathan through an energy entrepreneurship course they took at MIT. Samantha Holmes, trained at the Academia di Belle Arti in Ravenna, is an award-winning mosaic artist and designer who pushes the envelope on the aesthetic possibilities with solar. The trio first joined hands with Samantha for the 2013 MIT Clean Energy Prize, an experience that proved successful as they won the renewables track of the competition. Jody Fu, a Mechanical Engineering student at MIT, is a talented product designer who brings to life the concepts created by Samantha and Jonathan. Jody joined the team this past winter to build Sistine’s patent pending prototype solar tiles in partnership with the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy under a DOE grant.
Sistine’s pilot installation
All this progress has led to the team’s first pilot installation, which will be a parklet that will go live at Boston’s Audubon Circle in June. Built in partnership with local high school, Boston Green Academy, and non-profit, VSA, the “Parkolation Project” will feature Sistine’s uniquely designed aesthetic solar panels that will power cellphones and lighting 100% off-grid. Senthil and Ido were actively looking for pilot opportunities and while pitching to the City of Boston’s New Urban Mechanics group in March, they were connected to Wilhelmina Peragine, head of the Parkolation team. When they learnt that Wilhelmina is leading a 100% student-designed and built project, they knew this was exactly the type of project they wanted to be involved in. For it represents everything Sistine is about –beautiful solar that powers much needed applications, educational goal that gets students excited about solar, and a highly visible and engaging installation that captures the public’s imagination. Senthil and Ido knew the pilot had to be done!
Check out the Kickstarter page for the project, which has achieved its minimum goal in under 5 days! The team is gunning for the stretch goal of $50,000 which will enable the students to offer the blueprints for the design on an open-source basis so that students anywhere in the world can custom design and build a parklet for their neighborhood!
Ido and Senthil dream of a world where solar is everywhere, covering every surface of every building. They envision a world where solar is iconic, inspirational. Just as Neil Armstrong landing on the moon inspired a generation of youth to enroll in STEM education, so beautiful design has the massive capacity to inspire the world to adopt solar in every walk of life. Therein lies the road to 100% clean energy within our lifetime.
Biggest piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs
Senthil says, “Think of it this way. You get one shot at this life. At the end of it, how do you want to look back at your life? We regret more the things that we don’t do than the things we do. So, what I would say is if even a part of you wants to pursue an idea, then just act on it. You will find a million reasons not to, but ignore them and just do it. But, you have to commit yourself to it 100%. You can’t second-guess yourself or take half-steps. You have to back yourself to the hilt and put all your willpower and energy into it. If you do, I guarantee you that the journey will be worth it.”