Sistine Solar — A new breed of solar panels

Differentiation is essential to compete in cleantech. Companies like Tesla, SheerWind, and Sonnen are all excelling because of their ability to compete on factors other than cost while exceed in performance. Now, Boston and New York based early-stage startup Sistine Solar (pre-Series A) is taking design-oriented thinking to the solar industry with a radical and colorful new take on solar PV panels. Here is why they are a cleantech to bet on.


1. Highly differentiated technology

Sistine Solar has broken the tradeoff between performance and elegance with their SolarSkin technology. Its patent-pending approach integrates high-resolution and high-fidelity graphics into solar panels without compromising on aesthetics or energy generation. Why is this huge? Several companies already sell colored solar panels, for example Colored Solar in California and SwissInso and Solatronix in Switzerland, but they only sell that — colored panels. Sistine Solar is the first to sell stylized solar panels that incorporate graphics into their design. This means that everything from art to advertising to other aesthetics are possible. Plus, the company has done it while maintaining standard efficiency rates and not compromising on performance.

Whether for murals in city parks, for company logos displayed on billboards, or for “invisible” panels stacked on residential homes, Sistine Solar’s SolarSkin technology is reshaping the way we think about sustainability. Like Tesla, its one-of-a-kind design demonstrates that compromise between performance and elegance is an unnecessary tradeoff.

2. Art, advertising, and aesthetics pay big

Sistine Solar has the unique privilege to sell into multiple markets. One that it has already entered is urban infrastructure. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia are all piloting stylized panels because of their ability to showcase a visible commitment to sustainability. Public spaces like street furniture, urban art murals, and libraries are all targets. Though total spend on this kind of urban infrastructure varies, and is insubstantial for the growing startup ($350 million for urban art-related objects according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, and $330 million for street furniture according to the Outdoor Advertising Associate of America), the market is proving to be a fantastic showcase to cities and commercial entities worldwide. Sistine Solar can use the traction to springboard to other larger markets in billboard advertising and rooftop solar.

The beauty of SolarSkin technology is that now all sorts of billboards, banners, commercial rooftops, and malls can serve the dual purpose of advertising company brands and generating clean energy. This double value means Sistine Solar can command a higher price point than other advertisers. According to the Outdoor Advertising Associate of America, billboard revenue reached $4 billion in 2014 and alternative advertising reached $840 million in places like malls and stadiums. Those numbers are growing, so if Sistine Solar captured 10% of both at a premium price point, they could easily have revenues well over $500 million.

Then there is the U.S. residential solar market, which according to the Solar Energy Industries Association has experienced annual growth of over 50% from 2011 to 2015. The market has attained a cumulative capacity of 22,700 MW — enough to power 4.6 million average American homes. Sistine Solar can command a higher price point in this market as well since it can provide aesthetically beautiful superior panels (they can look like rooftop tiles or other designs). If by 2020 another 40,000 MW of residential solar is installed and Sistine Solar captures 1,000 MW at $4/watt, that is an additional $4 billion of potential revenue spread over the years, all with a steadily increasing margin as the hard and soft costs of residential solar continue to drop (currently at $3.50/watt). This could bring up total annual revenues with art and advertising to well over $1.5 billion for Sistine Solar.

3. Well rounded team

The Sistine Solar team has rounded expertise in all major aspects of its business. The company was founded in 2012 by co-founders Senthil Balasubramanian and Ido Salama, both of whom met at MIT Sloan and graduated with MBA degrees. They are the heads of product and sales of Sistine Solar. Prior to business school, Balasubramanian worked at a utility-scale PV power plant developer and held finance roles at GE, while Salama worked in a variety of investment banking and business development roles. To complement their business acumen, the two co-founders leveraged the photovoltaic expertise of Jonathan Mailoa, a PhD candidate at MIT’s Photovoltaic Research Laboratory, and the design expertise of Samantha Holmes, a designer and artist based in New York and Italy. Both strengthened the feasibility and desirability of the panels. Balasubramanian and Salama also worked with a few MIT mechanical engineering students to design and prototype the panels for production of quick proof-of-concepts.

The team has received significant press and praise for their work to date. The combination of their expertise in business, engineering, design, and manufacturing — not to mention their passion for sustainability — has been a huge driver of their success.

4. Early pilots and strong institutional support

The Sistine Solar team is already off and running with early pilots, funding, and world-class support networks. As previously mentioned, the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia are all piloting the panels in various urban infrastructures, but private industry has also begun piloting the panels. For example, Element Hotels of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide is piloting the panels for a colorful solar canopy that has cell phone charging outlets, while Microsoft is piloting the panels for their headquarters in Redmond, WA. These developments have been aided by a $1 million non-dilutive grant from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative Award, which the team won in late 2015. This award has given Sistine Solar access to experts, facilities, and test labs to fully test, warranty, and certify the SolarSkin technology — a boon to any startup. The team has also tapped into the exceptional support systems provided by Boston-based cleantech incubator Greentown Labs and New York-based cleantech incubator ACRE, which recently joined teams to establish one of the strongest early-stage support networks for cleantech companies in the world.

The combination of these support networks, funding, and early sales is indicative of the company’s potential. I see Sistine Solar as a clear and upcoming solar company to bet on with a high degree of differentiation.