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Clean Energy Entrepreneurs Share Experiences at Energy Commission’s EPIC Symposium

By Media Office Staff

Entrepreneurs can expect abundant rewards and challenges when pursuing innovation, according to a panel of clean energy leaders at the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) symposium.

The Feb. 19 event at the Sacramento Convention Center drew more than 800 people, including industry leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs. The symposium showcased projects funded through EPIC, an energy innovation funding program established in 2011.

A session on survival tips for entrepreneurs featured EPIC-funded entrepreneurs, who provided advice and discussed their challenges and lessons learned while building their businesses.

San Francisco-based Sunfolding used an EPIC grant to develop a unique solar tracker that is less expensive, more reliable, and simpler to operate and maintain than other trackers.

Leila Madrone, chief technology officer and founder of Sunfolding, described the collaborative nature of clean energy. In her early career, she said was enraptured by the hero’s journey, or the tech start-up ideal of a rogue individual changing the world.

Panel moderator Danielle Applestone agreed with Madrone. Applestone was an executive-in-residence at the Cyclotron Road Fellowship Program, which received EPIC funds for its efforts to help innovators turn their ideas from concepts to a viable first product.

“It’s no longer one rogue hero – it’s a team,” Applestone said, who is CEO and co-founder of Daughters of Rosie, an organization that fosters the careers of women in automation.

Panelists cautioned others to be prepared for rejection, but to persist in their goals. Cyclotron Road fellow Tim Latimer said investors that reject an idea are often not the right fit for the company.

“You don’t have to convince everyone at all times that your idea is the right one,” said Latimer, co-founder of Berkeley-based Fervo Energy, which is developing enhanced systems to generate more energy from geothermal sources.

Madrone said she encountered skepticism when she appeared at her first panel representing Sunfolding. Big, transformative ideas will often draw disapproval from 80 percent of people. Those pursuing innovation need to look for the 20 percent that will champion the ideas, she said.

For many panelists, their businesses required balancing planning and action, along with quality and costs.

Securing funding was also a top concern. Some panelists described the struggles of venturing into new technological terrain, and relying on grants to fund their work because some investors want short-term returns on their investments.

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