A Bright Future: 5 Questions with the Creators of Sun Co., Mandeep Patel and Taylor Zhao
Texas Engineering students Mandeep Patel and Taylor Zhao are on a mission to make solar energy accessible for everyone through their company, Sun Co. Their idea — a device that helps solar panels move with the movement of the sun — won them first place in the Shell Ideas360 global competition. The duo then entered the university’s first-ever Texas Business Plan Competition hosted by the Herb Kelleher Center in the McCombs School of Business to gain insight from local entrepreneurs and investors. Patel and Zhao competed against undergraduate teams from across Texas and won it all — $10,000 for their company and invaluable advice that could push Sun Co. to a new level of success.
We sat down with Patel, a mechanical engineering senior, and Zhao, an electrical engineering senior, to learn more about Sun Co., their experience at the Texas Business Plan Competition and what is next for their company.
How did the two of you become a team?
Patel: Taylor and I are part of the Roden Leadership Program, an engineering student leadership organization with 21 students from different disciplines. Last semester, I sent an email out asking if anyone wanted to do the Shell Ideas360 Competition, and Taylor, as well as another member who graduated had participated in that competition. The competition is really what got us developing the idea. Before that it was just a research project that I had worked on. Once I joined with them, we started planning it as a business. Taylor brought his knowledge from McCombs and we worked it out together to build it to where it is today.
What is Sun Co.?
Zhao: The whole point of the company is to increase solar adoption at homes. Right now, it is really expensive to adopt solar and your output is not as good. The sun moves, right? But your solar panel doesn’t follow it. So, people install trackers that use a motor and a battery, but a lot of that is really expensive to an average consumer. Our system is a passive tracker and doesn’t use any electricity, so you don’t have to install any wiring. You simply attach a spring that’s easy to self-install. To install other trackers, you have to hire a contractor to make sure it works but our system is a lot easier to use and it’s cheaper.
Patel: Taylor and I are going to finish testing the product within the next six months. We have a patent pending right now and we’ll finalize it within that timeframe. Once we finish our testing and receive the patent, if the product shows enough promise, that’s when we would go to our industry supplier contacts and tell them we’re ready to go, let’s start doing this.
What was your inspiration for this product and for your business plan?
Patel: I was researching the actual metals we use to power the system and they were really never meant to be applied to solar panel. Boeing was using the metal to lighten their airplane wings. Being in Roden and being at UT, you get exposure to so many different people and a lot of different ideas, so I got inspired by people around me and started forming the idea of a solar panel being tracked. It didn’t actually leave the ideas stage until we worked on it together for the Shell competition, so that’s really what accelerated it into the business that it is today.
Zhao: The first thing we need to do is talk to more customers — some solar instillation companies and homeowners who have panels on their roofs — to understand their pain points. The next thing is the prototype, so we need to finalize the design.
Patel: Patents are kind of expensive so Taylor and I have been entering more competitions to try to get more money to purchase the patent once we get to that point. And one of the next steps we’re taking in the design and in the prototype is to find a third member to join the team and help with that process.
Other than winning, what was your biggest takeaway from the competition?
Zhao: Definitely the feedback on customer voice. Every single judge grilled us on needing to talk to customers to understand their pain points and sit in their shoes or even for us to just buy a panel, use it and connect it to our own local grid. I think one thing we want to do is drive around Austin and find a food truck that has a solar panel and just ask them how it’s going. Getting that advice from judges who have started companies themselves was incredibly valuable.