This week’s Solar Women Summer Series interview features Emily Kirsch, CEO and Co-Founder of SfunCube, the world’s only incubator and accelerator dedicated to solar. SfunCube is an epicenter of solar innovation that houses and provides resources for entrepreneurs working to spread solar with smart software, finance, and analytic solutions.



What’s the biggest professional opportunity you’re going after right now?

The biggest professional opportunity I’m going after is also my biggest personal goal and that is to make solar the most abundant and affordable energy resource in the world. My role is to ensure entrepreneurs are at the forefront of leading this transition. SfunCube already hosts 23 companies which employ more than 300 people around the country and around the world. Those 23 companies have contributed to the installation of more than 500MW of solar in 2014 alone.

How do you help solar startups succeed?

SfunCube accelerates the success of solar entrepreneurs by building the world’s most vibrant ecosystem for solar startups. SfunCube is an epicenter of solar innovation in the heart of the Bay Area and is quickly becoming the entrepreneurial leader in building a solar-powered world. As the world’s first incubator and accelerator exclusive to solar tech, SfunCube provides early-stage solar startups  with collaborative co-working space, connections to customers, and connections to capital. Entrepreneurs working to spread solar with smart software, finance, and analytic solutions are housed and given the resources to scale.

When you were 5, what did you want to be “when you grew up?” Any relation to starting and running SfunCube?

When I was 5, I wanted to be a firefighter because I wanted to save lives. Running a startup while investing in and supporting solar entrepreneurs is as close to firefighting as it gets. Compared to the impacts of fossil fuel, solar saves lives.

Companies and people you respect who have helped you and SfunCube grow?

  • Danny Kennedy: Danny is co-founder of both SfunCube and Sungevity, which pioneered solar design software. More than two years ago, I pitched Danny on the idea of starting a company that would crank out solar software and finance solutions and leverage his experience and connections in the industry in order to accelerate the success of solar startups. Given his passion for the industry and his role as a board of member of the first two startups in SfunCube, Mosaic and Powerhive, Danny was keen to join forces and start SfunCube.
  • Jim Sandler: Jim was our first investor. He knew Danny but had no idea who I was. He was willing to take a risk on me and on SfunCube. It is people like Jim who make dreams like SfunCube real.
  • Colleen Callhoun: Colleen is Senior Executive Director at GE Energy Ventures. Colleen, along with her colleague Danielle Merfeld, brought GE in as our first Global Corporate Sponsor. Colleen and Danielle are examples of tremendous leadership and accomplishment in venture and renewables.
  • Susan Hollingshead: Susan is Chief People and Corporate Services Officer at Sungevity. Susan brought Sungevity in as our first Corporate Sponsor and has generously shared her decades of management experience with me.
  • Nancy Pfund: Nancy Pfund is Founder and Managing Partner of DBL Investors, a venture capital firm located in San Francisco. DBL were early investors in Tesla, Nest, and SolarCity. Nancy is on the board of SolarCity and serves as a role to me and countless other women in venture capital and in solar.

Your favorite part about working in the solar industry and owning your own business?

As a sophomore in high school, I was selected for our regional varsity crew team. We trained six days a week, twice a day; once from 5-7 a.m. before school and again after school from 4-6 p.m. We trained on Saturdays and raced on Sundays. It was intense, but our team was one of the best in the nation and it felt good to be part of a winning team.

In solar, we’re building the team and training hard to be best in the world. Our team is already 2.5 million strong worldwide. We’re winning the race against coal as we speak and we will surge past fossil fuel. My favorite part about working in solar is being part of a winning team whose success has only just begun. The reason solar will continue to dominate is that it’s a technology not a fuel. It is becoming better, faster, and cheaper than any alternative.

The best part of owning my own business is seeing the impact of our work on our customers who are solar entrepreneurs. Seeing their smiles as pitches are perfected, term sheets are signed, and customers are acquired is the most fulfilling part of our work.

Do you think there are enough opportunities available for women in solar? How can we get more women into the industry? Why does it matter to get more women involved?

Women represent 51 percent of the professional and technical workforce in the US and represent 47 percent of the general workforce. However, women hold just 20 percent of jobs in solar. A couple companies and organizations are taking a leading role in creating opportunities for women like SunEdison, GRID Alternatives, and Women in Solar Energy (WISE). Women will eventually represent 50 percent or more of the solar workforce. The question is: Which companies will take the initiative to accelerate that process and will female founders of solar startups have access to the resources they need to succeed?

At SfunCube, two out of six companies in the Accelerator portfolio have female CEOs: Elena Lucas, Co-Founder and CEO of UtilityAPI, and Claudia Eyzaguirre, Co-Founder and CEO of PVComplete. Our goal is for the founders of solar startups in SfunCube to reflect the gender balance in our broader workforce. We are members of the C3E – Women in Clean Energy Initiative convened by the US Department of of Energy and MIT which is sponsored by SolarCity.

Getting more women in the industry and in positions of leadership in particular will accelerate the growth and success of the industry as whole. Countless studies show that companies with women on their boards and in positions of top leadership outperform their gender-biased competitors. Women’s leadership in solar is good business.

3 tips for networking with investors in the solar industry?

  1. Show Up: In the Bay Area, there is a plethora of angels, VCs, family offices, and foundations that are already active in, or want exposure to, solar startup investment opportunities. You can find them at events like the US Department of Energy’s SunShot Catalyst software competition or our Solar Hackathon. 
  2. Warm Up: If you want an introduction to an investor, find someone who that investor knows and trusts and ask them to make the intro for you. Your chances of getting a response are much higher when you use existing social networks. 
  3. Follow Up: Persistence is admirable and it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, so follow up until they tell you to stop. 

 What did you learn from this year’s hackathon? When’s the next one?

Once a year, SfunCube hosts our Solar Hackathon. We had 100 developers, programmers, designers, and solar experts come together for 30 hours to hack solar solutions. Our sponsors Sunrun, Enphase, Sungevity, and Genability provided awesome data sets. We learned that developers making dating apps in San Francisco want to put their programming skills to use in something that makes a difference like solar. We learned that passionate and talented teams can come together, and in less than 36 hours, build working apps and sites that have a huge impact in the industry. Check out the Solar Hackathon winners. There’s also great 2-minute video on YouTube.

What are the plans for SfunCube in the next 3 years? What do you need to succeed?

In the next three years SfunCube will put dozens of solar startups through our Accelerator and host even more in our Incubator. We will establish a global presence to ensure solar entrepreneurs everywhere have the tools they need to succeed. SfunCube will be the entrepreneurial leader in building a solar-powered world.

SfunCube needs you to succeed. If you’re reading this, you’re likely in the industry already or want to join. If you’re in it, you have unique insight into the pain points the solar industry is facing and every successful business thrives because it’s solving a real problem. Each one of the solar startups at SfunCube came from someone deciding to address a problem. What problem will you solve, and what impact will you have? If your answer uses innovation in software or finance to spread solar adoption, then SfunCube might be your place in the sun.

Anything else? Resources, tools to help solar women succeed?

If you’re like me, you don’t like to fail, but at times we will; it’s just part of the process and shouldn’t stop us. The only real failure is not trying.

Additional Resources