A successful Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, Dr. Andy Skumanich is currently CEO and Founder of SolarVision Consulting, a boutique technology business development company whose technologists work on renewables and DG energy production projects. He also co-founded Advenira Enterprises, a start-up that develops advanced coat ins and performance thin films. In the past, he’s provided executive level support for a variety of solar start-ups (such as SiGen and Innovalight), worked as a Senior Technologist at Applied Materials in the Solar division, and was a staff scientist at IBM Research. His professional experience combined with a PhD from UC Berkeley in Physics has made him a global expert on microgrids, an active member of the global solar community, and a key speaker at international conferences.
Why do you care about sustainability? What drives you to continue your work in this field?
This is such an important issue for our time, sustainability is necessary because we live on spaceship Earth, and we can’t just pick-up and move if we degrade this one. We need to quickly become the guardians of our planet, and that means smart management of resources, and of course energy in particular.
I see real progress being made which helps keep me very engaged in this field. For the first time, a majority of people now recognize the need for sustainability – so we need to provide the leadership to help them find the paths to a better future for our planet.
Tell us a bit about your background and expertise. How did you become interested in entrepreneurship? What advice do you often find yourself giving to other up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
My background was firmly based in science and technology and I got my degree from Berkeley where I studied advanced materials for solar cells. I started out as an industry scientist, and found that the direct application of science for improving the human condition was exciting. Having worked at big corporations (IBM, Applied Materials, etc.), I could see instances where those corporations could not explore commercialization of some intriguing engineering and I switched to working with start-ups. Then finally, I tarted putting together my own pieces for being an entrepreneur, and I’ve never looked back. I’ve founded or helped with several start-ups now, and some have taken off.
Can you share a few of your renewable energy goals and how you’ve prioritized them in your work and life?
My own RE goals are very simple: reduce my carbon footprint, save water, and install solar. This goals have me change everyday moves with the view for reducing footprint – drive as little as possible, don’t waste water, etc. The small changes add up.
Have you ever failed in your pursuit of creating positive change for a sustainable future? What did you learn from that failure?
So, I definitely come from the Silicon Valley culture where failure is a “good” thing when it is a result of reaching for something – extending beyond your comfort and knowledge zone; and, when you can learn from that failure. So in terms of creating a positive change for sustainability, I’ve not had a failure per-se, but I’ve had failures along the way in trying new things. A couple of the start-ups I’ve worked on have failed – one was an innovative way to make cheap solar-cells, the other was an approach for better supercapacitors – but they didn’t make it. Now looking back, it’s possible to see the missing pieces and learn why they wouldn’t go. But that’s the benefit of failure in trying, you’re learning by the doing, not just by following the boss’s dictates.
When you’re not working, what are you doing?
I love the outdoors so I’m always either hikeing, or mountain climbing, or backpacking. There must be some basic human drive for being “one-with-nature” and I definitely have that in me. Then too, I can enjoy lively discussions with people about lots of topics, over coffee or wine, depending on the time of day. One of the current topics that fascinates me is our bio-chemical nature, and how much we are creatures of our bio-chemical-electrical nature. But that’s another subject altogether.
You founded and are CEO of SolarVision Co. What prompted you to create your own technology business development company?
I saw a need to provide independent, tech based business development where the learning could be leveraged across lots of different segments. We are a small team, but we get a great diversity of projects that range from the immediate – for investors looking at evaluating current events – to longer range – a client that wanted to know about solar powered greenhouses, how could that be achieved using advanced PV, and in what long-term time frame. So given our expertise, we bring a tech perspective to how to grow businesses.
You provide executive-level support to various solar start-ups. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you support start-ups and what challenges they often face?
This is a great topic and easily could take lots of discussion. What I like about working with a start-up is that it’s almost like creating a mosaic as an artist would. You have to take all of these pieces – the idea, the market need, the differentiation, the people, the financing, etc – and see how to make them all fit where the whole becomes more than just the sum of the parts. In a mosaic, you take the tiles, put them together, and voila, a picture emerges that can be beautiful. I support start-ups by looking at what the pieces are, which ones are missing, how they can be improved, and how they can be put together. And in a way the biggest challenges for a start-up is to get enough of those pieces that the picture holds together. More specifically, start-ups think that all you need is the idea, what I try to do is show with my experience what other pieces need to come together to make the picture more complete. I’ve learned so many things, but one thing is that we have the ability to be incredibly imaginative and that it’s so rewarding to find ways to bring that spark of innovation out.
Three key people who have helped you grow as an entrepreneur, consultant, and educator?
My grad school advisor, Nabil Amer, was a major inspiration to me – he showed me how dynamic it can be to put science to work. The other “key person” is not a person but the Hertz Foundation, which supported me in grad school, and it too sent the message that Science, when nurtured, can help more humanity forward – this was a powerful view that shaped my thinking. And third, as corny as it may sound, was my 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Englewood, who was always asking me “.. Andy, why do you think that is? Where can you go with that?” – simple questions for a grade school kid – but truly profound at any age.
What do you think the next advancement of clean energy, microgrids, and green building will be?
There are so many exciting things happening with those segments. I think that we are on a path to make our energy just like our food. We will be our own local do-it-yourself energy growers and harvest our electricity. We need to recapture control of our food, water, and energy. I think that at least for energy, it is on the way.
What legacy do you want to leave your community and the world?
There’s a great movie that came out last year that will answer that question for me. The movie Lucy is a great action movie, but it also has a powerful message – that our role as humans is to acquire knowledge and then to “pass it on.” Lucy in the movie does just that ( but at orders of magnitude beyond what I’d ever do). Anyway, my legacy would be the knowledge that I can synthesize and the learning that I can achieve, which I can pass on. This comes back full circle to my desire to see us as an “entity” in the universe, carry on. I’m always amazed by the complexity of us as an accumulation of cells, and chemical processes (look up the “methyl cycle” sometime to get a flavor). As a part of the universe that can self-reflect, can organize our outside world and can create, it would be great to be part of the starting “petri dish culture” that managed to make a foray out from our precious planet.
Learn more from Dr. Andy Skumanich by enrolling in his Microgrid Design and Implementation Course!