Author: Clare Le

A Future So Bright: 10 questions with Pick My Solar Co-founders Max Aram and Chris Blevins

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Since Max and Chris started Pick My Solar in 2013, they’ve taken the company from a two-person operation out of a studio apartment in Northridge to being named 2015’s Small Business of the Year by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

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Read on to learn more about Max, Chris, and Pick My Solar’s story – and the bright future ahead for these LA-based entrepreneurs.

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In your words, what is Pick My Solar?

Max: Pick My Solar is an online marketplace that connects homeowners to solar installers through our online bidding platform. We create competition between installers to get the best deals for our customers. As you might know, the solar industry is suffering from a lot of noise that is preventing people from getting the best information. We want to disrupt this market and help homeowners go solar with confidence. The best part is that we don’t charge our customers anything– our service is completely free.

What inspired you to start the company?

Chris: Directly before starting Pick My Solar, I was working in the solar industry in sales, and I found that solar was getting sold for double, sometimes triple what it should be sold for. Salesmen are trained to manipulate and outright lie to homeowners, resulting in a lot of people getting ripped off. At that point, I realized that something needed to be done.

Max: When I started my Master’s degree in Germany, I was exposed to renewable energy and sustainability in general. I came to the US and I realized that the solar market here was very fragmented and totally different from Germany. I knew there was great potential for solar technology to shape the future of our energy model. When I met Chris, we hit it off from the first moment and I realized that he was the partner I needed to start the company I was envisioning.

Where are you from originally? What brought you to LA?

Chris: I’m from Long Island, New York. I went to school in upstate New York, got a mechanical engineering degree, and after that I moved to New Zealand. That’s where I first started to become more of an environmentalist, getting in touch with taking care of the planet because that’s so ingrained in New Zealand’s culture. When I came back, I got a civil engineering job and started a few businesses that were online customer connection services. I flew out to California in 2013 with the hopes of eventually starting a business, but didn’t have a set plan. I crashed on my buddy’s couch for a week, got a job working in solar, and met Max not too far after that.

Max: I left Iran in 2009, 10 days after the fraudulent presidential election. There was chaos and I got into some problems being a student activist. I went to Germany to get my Master’s in global production engineering with a focus on solar. After a few semesters, I had the opportunity to come to the US and I think I made a really great choice. I don’t think an immigrant has the opportunities available here in the states anywhere else in the world. I came here August 2010, landed in Burbank, took a bus to Northridge, and continued my Master’s at CSUN.

How did the two of you meet?

Chris: We met at a solar training course – where solar companies train salesmen, teaching them different tactics before they’re sent into the field. I was there as part of my job, Max was there researching how solar is marketed and sold. Three months later he invites me over to his apartment, tells me the idea he had for a business and we stay up all night talking about it. I didn’t sleep at my house for a week, I kept crashing at his place so eventually I just moved into his apartment.

Max: At the time, we both had full time jobs and said, “ok, this idea is going to be the solution this industry needs. We’re going to disrupt the solar market”. We quit our jobs to dedicate our lives to building Pick My Solar. I had a 600 square foot studio apartment in Northridge, we used boards from IKEA to divide work space from living space. We worked out of there for about 10 months until we joined LACI.

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Why did you apply to be a portfolio company at LACI?

Max: Before joining LACI, there were two of us. We were two young kids with a great idea. When we joined LACI we started gaining more attention and respect from the industry and partners. The introductions that LACI has made for us have directly contributed to many of our achievements as a company.

How has LACI helped your company?

Chris: The mentorship is fantastic. We don’t have the experience of growing a company, but our mentors at LACI have been there and done that. Every single question we had – from how to write a proper business email to which strategic direction was best for the company – they had a meaningful answer.

Running a startup company can be a challenging experience. What motivates you to keep at it?

Chris: Our concern for the environment definitely plays a key role. Additionally, I was disgusted with the way the solar industry was bullying homeowners and trying to rip them off. Time and again I saw well-intentioned homeowners throw up their hands in frustration and give up on going solar. It was messed up that salespeople were destroying this new technology’s image by selling it the wrong way. We wanted to change that.

Max: Personally, since my childhood, I’ve loved to build things. My brain works in a way that when I face a problem, I can’t get over it. Either there’s a solution out there that I have to find, or else I have to create one. The solar industry had a problem. Making the impact on the environment and on people’s finances is something that motivates me every day. Every time we receive an email or on a phone call from a happy customer that appreciates our service, that keeps us going.

How do you like doing business in the Los Angeles area?

Max: As an immigrant, the reason I chose LA is because of the diversity – people are very open-minded. That doesn’t just apply to how people interact with each other, but also to their willingness to accept new ideas. It was easier for us to offer such a different solution and have people embrace it. That’s a great part of this culture in LA – we are blessed to start a company here.

Chris: I think it’s great that a lot of people aren’t from here. Everybody has the same attitude – we all came to LA for a reason, to experience something new – and that really builds off of what we’re trying to create. Our solution resonates well with Angelenos. Of course, the weather is great and electricity rates are extremely high – which makes even more sense for solar.

Tell us about some of the milestones you’ve reached as a company so far

Max: At the end of Q4 2014, we closed over a million dollars in generated sales. We’ve also provided over 15,000 Californians with solar pricing data from our no-obligation online solar price calculator. These were major milestones because they validated our concept and proved that the price of solar on our platform is lower than the market leaders. We were also named 2015 Outstanding Small Business by Mayor Garcetti, which was a big deal for us, showing that the City of LA values our contribution in helping to make it a world leader in the Green movement.

Chris: We recently won a grant from the Department of Energy to develop a first-of- its-kind app called PVimpact. PVimpact will be a universal tool for all solar homes to connect to the information grid. The technology aggregates three pieces of data: the homeowner’s electricity use, solar system production, and contractual details of the solar system. PVimpact will provide homeowners with their system’s true savings in a completely software solution, while providing utility companies assistance in demand side management. The app will be rolled out to all Pick My Solar customers this summer, then expanding to the rest of the U.S. residential solar market in the fall.

What are some of your goals for the company?

Chris: Solar is such a cutting edge technology, but it is predominantly sold the way aluminum siding was sold in the 1960’s – door to door. We are firmly convinced that solar deserves to be sold with the leading technological resource of our era – the internet. We really want to change the way that solar is sold, and the way homeowners think about going solar.

Max: Our long-term goal is to become one of the biggest solar companies in the nation without a single boot on the ground. We don’t need installation crews like these vertically integrated companies. What we’re doing is creating an online market place – a bidding platform that brings homeowners together with the best local installers. We have all seen this model work across numerous business segments, and we know it will become the norm for the solar market.

Learn more at www.pickmysolar.com
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Second Chances, A Third Way

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When Kabira Stokes drove cross-country from Philadelphia at age 22, like many East Coast transplants she was fascinated by the idea of Los Angeles. In contrast to New York, LA – in Kabira’s mind – was “a story still being written.” Fast-forward to 2015 and a career in public service, a master’s degree, and a successful startup business later, Kabira and her company Isidore Electronics Recycling are contributing to the LA story – for the better.

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A full service electronics recycling and repair company in addition to being a vintage electronics supplier, Isidore  recycles electronics in an environmentally responsible way while providing training and jobs for Angelenos facing  barriers to employment. Formerly incarcerated and homeless job seekers can find a place there. While many organizations that serve these segments of the population are non-profit, Isidore is a for-profit company, which, as Kabira explained, demonstrates a “third way” of doing business:

 

We’re here to make money, but equally, we’re here to make a social and environmental impact.

Kabira’s inspiration for the company came during her days working as a field deputy for then-Los Angeles City Councilmember Eric Garcetti. Dealing directly with constituents facing issues with gangs and crime in their neighborhoods, Kabira saw what she called “the demonization” of people who have been to prison and the difficulties they faced trying to build a new life after serving their time. “These people paid their debt to society and were ready to work again, but because of a lack of opportunity they’d often end up committing crimes again, perpetuating an all-too-common cycle,” explained Kabira.

Witnessing firsthand one of the root causes of the prison recidivism rate, Kabira was determined to get a Masters in Public Policy to equip herself with the knowledge to begin to provide a solution. While studying the California penal system and workforce development, her mentor Van Jones posed a pivotal question: “Do you want to create the policy to create jobs? Or just create jobs?” That was when the idea for Isidore Electronics Recycling was born.

Since Isidore’s establishment, Kabira co-founded “Impact Recyclers”, a national network of 7 socially responsible e-waste companies built on the triple bottom line model. Kabira had a larger goal in co-creating the network: to redefine the recycling of e-waste as an American industry. Hundreds of thousands of tons of e-waste are shipped overseas and often times aren’t processed in environmentally responsible ways. Impact Recyclers works to keep those jobs in the U.S., providing employment for the segments of our population that have the most difficulty finding work, and minimizing the impact of e-waste on the global environment.

Kabira applied to be a portfolio company at LACI at her company’s most difficult time. The warehouse that she was operating out of burned down, as did most of her business. Two months later, her co-founder quit. After losing almost everything, “I needed a team, and LACI became my team. We met weekly to get the business back up and running. I wouldn’t be here without them.” In addition to helping the company in the aftermath of the warehouse fire, Kabira credits LACI with providing instrumental help with Isidore’s financial modeling, projections, finding resources for the company, and providing ongoing mentorship and guidance.

Starting and running a successful company, especially as a woman in a male dominated industry, isn’t the easiest endeavor. When Kabira was asked what keeps her going during difficult times her answer was simple and immediate: her workers. “It means a lot to have created an environment where people aren’t judged by the worst thing they ever did, they’re judged by how they did at work that day. The power of giving people a second chance, the way they respond to being giving that chance is just amazing. For a lot of my workers, this is the first real job they’ve ever had.”

Kabira’s short-term goals for Isidore Electronics Recycling are focused on raising capital so she can to hire more workers and provide her current ones with better wages. Long term, she hopes that her model can be replicated and expanded beyond Los Angeles. Kabira and her company demonstrate the positive impact that entrepreneurship can have on the environment, an industry, and in the lives of the people employed through her mission. The triple bottom line of “people, profit, and planet” continues to motivate Kabira as her business grows – and inspire those who are a part of it.

www.isidorerecycling.com

GLOSHO’15 Partnership Opportunities

GLOSHO’15 Announces available Partnership Opportunities. Download the opportunities brochure and package information, visit the GLOSHO’15 website, or contact us directly to become participate in of the world’s best clean tech events of the year.

Partnership Opportunities Brochure

We invite you to download our partnership brochure for a complete view of opportunities we have available.

Contact

Michael Swords
glosho@laincubator.org

Pick My Solar wins SBA’s “Outstanding Small Business” award for 2015

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LACI Portfolio Company Pick My Solar was named this year’s “Outstanding Small Business” on May 4th at Los Angeles City Hall. Presented by Mayor Garcetti as part of LA Small Business Week, the recognition comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration‘s Small Business Development Center.

Pick My Solar was founded in 2013 and joined LACI that same year. With backgrounds in engineering, Co-Founders Max Aram and Chris Blevins have always felt passionate about solar power, both from scientific and environmental perspectives. When they entered the solar industry after college, they realized that a major obstacle to broad-based industry growth was confusion on the part of consumers over the purchasing, bidding, and financing of solar power. Max and Chris then created Pick My Solar, which serves as an online marketplace, to simplify the process, drive down costs, and provide transparency for homeowners.

Since it’s founding just two years ago, Pick My Solar has assisted over 10,000 homeowners with solar pricing, data, and installation.

This award from Mayor Garcetti and the Small Business Administration adds to an exciting list of recognitions the company has received this year, including winning a U.S. Department of Energy grant for app development and being highlighted on KTLA’s “Money Smart” segment.

LACI’s President & CEO Fred Walti commented on the award, saying

Pick My Solar is a great example of a company harnessing the innovative, entrepreneurial spirit here in the LA region. Not only are they making a positive environmental impact through the services they offer, they’re saving homeowners money and contributing to the increase in home solar installations, which helps created jobs in LA’s green economy. Here at LACI, we’re proud to have Pick My Solar as one of our Portfolio Companies and know they will continue to succeed as they expand throughout the Southern California market.

To learn more about Pick My Solar and how they can help you go solar in a simple, affordable way, visit their website.

If you’re interested in putting LACI’s tools and networks to work for you and your business, apply to be a Portfolio Company here.

GLOSHO Returns to J.W. Marriott @LA LIVE

GLOSHO’15 returns to the J.W. Marriott @LA LIVE, October 21 and 22, 2015. Check back here, at glosho.la to keep up to date with GLOSHO’15 as the program is developed, speakers sign up, and special events are planned.

For the most up-to-date information, sign up for our newsletter to get information delivered to your email inbox.

laxjw_logo_LJW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE
900 West Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90015 USA

1-213-765-8600

LACI Hosts La Kretz Innovation Campus Tours

Join us for an exclusive presentation and walking tour for LACI portfolio companies and strategic partners on the La Kretz Innovation Campus – Los Angeles’ new cleantech industry hub – a place where entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists and policymakers can collaborate, promote and support the development of clean technologies and LA’s green economy.

A fully renovated 60,000 square foot building located at 5th and Hewitt Streets in the dynamic Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles, the Campus features offices, conference rooms, R&D labs, a prototype manufacturing workshop, a training center and an event space, all under one roof. The Campus is directly adjacent to the site of a new Arts District Park and will offer surface parking with a 175 kilowatt photovoltaic solar canopy, grey water filtration, bioswale, and microgrid systems all in the heart of LA’s Cleantech Corridor.

Register for a tour at Eventbrite

Eventbrite - La Kretz Innovation Campus Walking Tour and Info Session

GLOSHO15, SAVE THE DATE

GLOSHO returns to the Los Angeles J.W. Marriott, October 21 & 22, 2015. Save the date, and be sure to join us! Are you interested in sponsorship, participating, or getting tickets? Watch the GLOSHO website for upcoming details!

Earth Day 2015: A new partnership for innovation between LACI and Greentown Labs

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LACI partnering with Somerville, MA’s Greentown Labs to expand resources and market access for cleantech startups

Earth Day 2015 marks the beginning of a bi-coastal partnership between the two leading cleantech incubators in their respective markets. LACI and Greentown Labs have signed an agreement fostering collaboration between the Los Angeles and Boston area cleantech ecosystems to benefit early stage environmentally focused companies.

Greentown Labs is the first domestic partner to join LACI’s Network for Global Innovation (NGIN), which brings together innovation institutions around the world aimed at accelerating the commercialization of clean technology on a global scale.

“LACI is very excited to welcome Greentown Labs into the Network for Global Innovation family”, said Fred Walti, President and CEO of LACI. “They are an outstanding example of an incubator building significant cleantech companies and getting them successfully into the market. We’re excited and honored to have them join the rest of NGIN partners in Mexico, Finland, Germany, Italy, China, and Japan”.

In addition to exchanging best practices between startup ecosystems, the collaboration will also allow early stage companies to access each organization’s network of potential investors, customers, and partners. As part of the agreement, LACI and Greentown Labs are both hosting “Landing Pad” programs, a component of NGIN designed to help cleantech entrepreneurs enter NGIN members’ markets in a structured, cost-effective, and risk-mitigated way.

 “We see our partnership with LACI as critical to our startup companies, providing connections to new investors in new markets, both nationally and internationally”, said Greentown Labs CEO and Executive Director Emily Reichert.

LACI and Greentown Labs will offer office space, mentor and advisory services, networking, and showcase opportunities to each incubator’s portfolio companies, providing the foundation for successful market expansion for cleantech entrepreneurs. To date, NGIN partners in Beijing, Berlin, Los Angeles, and now the greater Boston area have Landing Pad programs available to cleantech startups in the network.

LACI’s mandate in “the pLAn” – Mayor Garcetti’s Sustainability Roadmap

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LACI’s Fred Walti with Mayor Garcetti

On April 8th, Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a landmark Sustainable City Plan outlining a set of wide-ranging goals and directives to improve Angelenos’ environmental and economic quality of life. The plan outlines 13 specific areas for improvement, ranging from local water and energy efficient buildings, to mobility & transit and livable neighborhoods.

“We expect at least 500,000 more people to call Los Angeles home by 2035. So the question before us… is how can we improve our city today, and ensure future generations enjoy a place that is environmentally healthy, economically prosperous, and equitable in opportunity for all?”, asked the Mayor in his opening letter, reflecting the plan’s overarching framework of “environment, economy, and equity”.

In the Prosperity and Green Jobs section, the $50 million dollars of private investment raised by LACI portfolio companies  is cited as an example of “LA’s Leadership To Date”. The plan calls for $100 million in green investment by 2017 through LACI specifically – and $2 billion by 2035 for the city of Los Angeles generally – towards the goal of creating more green jobs in LA than anywhere else in the country.

In an interview cited in the Los Angeles Times, LA’s Chief Sustainability Officer Matt Petersen emphasized the need for multiple sectors to work together in order to reach the plan’s objectives, “If we don’t take the step to set targets, and measure progress to achieve those targets, how will we send the signals to the private sector, to the universities, that this is important as a community to come together? There are things we can do, but we can’t do it alone”.

LACI’s President and CEO Fred Walti commended the Mayor’s initiative, and is confident that LACI will rise to the occasion:

The Mayor’s Plan is a breakthrough document that shows what a major city can do when it makes up its mind to do something about our environment. It’s both comprehensive and remarkably detailed. LACI’s role is to develop the companies that will help make the plan’s implementation feasible and cost effective. Innovation is the key ingredient that will make LA a huge green economy. LACI finds, trains, and assists cleantech start-ups in achieving market success, thus providing the technologies that are so essential to a sustainable city. 

As a public-private partnership between the private sector, government and academia, LACI works with the various stakeholders mentioned by Matt Petersen to strengthen LA’s cleantech and economic ecosystems for a sustainable and prosperous future. We look forward to continuing towards these goals, and doing our part to make the Mayor’s Sustainability Plan a reality.

Announcing LACI @ ProspectSV

LACI@ProspectSV offers early stage support for promising clean technology companies designed to prime pilots and increase market adoption throughout California.

February 19, 2015 (Silicon Valley, CA) – Prospect Silicon Valley (ProspectSV) and the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) are excited to announce the launch of LACI@ProspectSV, results-oriented help for promising early stage companies that augment ProspectSV’s state-of-the-art Technology Demonstration Center and commercialization programs with LACI’s world-class incubation platform.  The LACI@ProspectSV initiative is part of the broader US Department of Energy (DOE) funded California Cleantech Commercialization Coalition (4C), the first statewide partnership to provide comprehensive support to clean energy startups.

ProspectSV is leading the way as a California commercialization catalyst for emerging clean technology companies that are ready to bring their product to market.  Their 23,000 sf facility supports leading technology pilots and demonstration projects, and has become a headquarters for product refinement, testing, and commercialization.  In addition, ProspectSV builds partnerships to leverage infrastructure as “living laboratories” for next-generation technology, providing a world-leading stage for investors, potential customers, global corporate leaders, and government policymakers to see innovation in traffic, vehicle, building and energy technology in action.

To help further meet the demands of many emerging companies, and to prepare them to leverage the substantial assets of ProspectSV, LACI will offer its incubation support to emerging companies at ProspectSV facilities.  In turn, ProspectSV will offer its facilities and expertise to help the companies that LACI currently serves in southern California.

“We are thrilled with this important partnership, and to be part of the 4C team representing California,” said Doug Davenport, Executive Director of ProspectSV, “Working together, our programs will make a great impact on emerging technology coming out of this part of the country and will create a model that can be used globally.”

“Connecting the best organizations across California, which serves as the global model for cleantech innovation, is the logical evolution of our cluster,” said Fred Walti, Executive Director of LACI.  “Together, we can better support the best young companies and see greater adoption in global markets.”

LACI is designed to help early-stage cleantech companies to deftly navigate the difficult startup years through its formalized support system, deep bench of expert mentors, strong network of investment capital and market resources, and pragmatic education and training, Named a UBI Global Top 10 Incubator in 2014 in just its 3rd year operating, LACI has formally incubated 30 companies that have secured over $50 million in funding and have created over 450 jobs.  LACI@ProspectSV is its second satellite, following the successful launch of LACI@CSUN in 2014.

This partnership between LACI and Prospect SV is a vital bridge between innovation and commercialization partners across California as part of the broader US Department of Energy (DOE) funded California Cleantech Commercialization Coalition (4C).  The 4C is the first statewide partnership to provide comprehensive support to clean energy startups, offering clean energy innovators a unique suite of full-spectrum, long-term support services to help them bring promising clean technologies to market, including best-in-class:

By unifying industry-leading incubation, prototype manufacturing, commercial-scale pilots, and market-entry programs, the 4C substantially de-risks an inherently risky sector, facilitating investment from a wide array of capital sources in California, the top clean technology market in the nation.  For information on the 4C, please visit http://4c.laci.org

About Prospect Silicon Valley (ProspectSV)

Prospect Silicon Valley (ProspectSV) is the first nonprofit, Silicon Valley-based technology commercialization catalyst for smarter, cleaner cities globally. ProspectSV supports emerging technology companies with access to facilities, platforms, partners, and market connections, including its Demonstration Center, a $12 million, 23,000 sq. ft. facility with industrial and lab space, office and meeting rooms, promotional space and commercialization support staff. ProspectSV includes market connections and early adoption in the municipal sector through the Bay Area Climate Collaborative, a unique public-private partnership assisting communities across the Bay Area in taking on their biggest challenges in reducing carbon emissions.  Learn more at www.prospectsv.org.

About the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI)

LACI is a non-profit, public-private partnership that helps promising companies deliver market-ready cleantech solutions and the jobs that come with them. LACI combines capital, universities, research, government support, entrepreneurs, corporate partners, and business leaders in order to drive innovation throughout the regional, state, and global economy.  Recognized as a Top 10 Global Incubator in 2014 by UBI, in its first three years LACI has helped 30+ companies who have raised $50+ million and have created 450+ jobs.  Learn more at www.newlaci.staging.wpengine.com.