BBV Founder Spotlight: Jalel Sager— New Sun Road
The BBV Founder Spotlight is a series of posts highlighting founders from our portfolio companies and the incredible work they are pursuing to solve challenges in critical industries such as health and climate through technology innovation.
Thank you Jalel for taking the time.
Contributor Irfan Vissandjee
Tell us about your company. What defines your innovation?
New Sun Road was set up to make renewable energy microgrids ubiquitous, and able to meet the needs of poor communities. We work on that now via our platform technologies that are fun (think spaceship controls) but powerful (machine learning suites) and meaningful (addressing climate change and inequality).
Where did your company’s name come from?
Partly a dream I had in April 2012, partly an early idea to work on solar-powered depots for swappable electric bike batteries for Vietnam — kind of a solar-powered Better Place for SE Asian two-wheelers.
“New Sun Road” seemed better than “New Solar Road”, so it stuck. I thought it sounded vaguely like a noodle shop you might find on top of Mount Fuji, which I liked.
What was the motivation behind starting your company?
To move the world through a powerful company, which seemed at the time more likely than doing this through government or academia.
What role did the University play in the formation of your company or technology?
Berkeley gave us some basement space to allow our tinkerers to tinker, a fancy boardroom to let our nascent deal makers deal, and some cubicles to let everyone else sweat code. It also gave us a set of fine mentors and a community bound together by a lot of shared understandings and goals.
How did you meet your co-founder? How long did it take?
We met in a graduate power systems class at UC-Berkeley. The meeting was more or less instantaneous, but we worked through a semester together to design a microgrid for an island in Vietnam; some colleagues there had suggested “New Sun Road,” which was called SEA-RAE at the time, work on that off-grid problem.
As the class ended we had a power system design and started looking for very tiny pots of money to get going; one of these was the UN SEED program, which gave us $5,000 from the German ministry of climate and environment; some of that registered the New Sun Road name. Accepting the award from Achem Steiner in Nairobi, we made connections that helped us pivot from Southeast Asia to East Africa.
How is the firm different today from when you first started?
It’s focused on software and IoT tech development — and on the needs of demanding markets and customers; the adventures we had developing solar microgrids on remote islands in Lake Victoria are only a memory, but we still wear funny hats sometimes to remind ourselves of our salad days.
How has the fundraising process been for the company?
Fundraising is always tough for a startup focused on public benefit, I think — we’re a bit of a hybrid between a social enterprise and a rocket ship. We like thinking about technology and what they enable our customers to do. Talking to investors, even when we have pretty prodigious growth numbers to point to, can be challenging. We’ve had great investment support from Microsoft and a core group of existing investors, but we’re looking to add one savvy impact firm and one savvy energy tech / clean tech firm, who get us, to the mix.
What aspects of BBV’s coaching and support was the most helpful?
BBV have some of the most industry-savvy technology investors we have worked with. Their insight into the growth path of a young company has been pivotal for us, their understanding of common pitfalls and challenges has been useful, and their quick understanding of our position has delivered durable signposts as we continue to iterate our strategy over years. They are really good people, and extremely good at working with deep-technology-focused ventures, especially those led by engineers and researchers.
BBV and the principals have been with us one way or another through inception, and it was important to us to have them in our seed round.
What’s ahead for your company in 2021?
A full-scale blitz on key markets — 2020 was a watershed year for us in terms of sales growth, something like 520%. We got traction in the US, which was a major strategic goal for 2020, and now have three geographies to really work.
We’ll also release Stellar Microgrid OS 4.0, following closely on the heels of the 3.0 release in September that’s been very popular; people can expect speed, easier scaling, more integrated AI. This is what has the engineering team excited, and they have always driven the company.
What lasting impact do you want to leave with your company?
From an organization perspective, we want to show that a great technology company can be organized in the public interest, as a public benefit company; we’d like to escape the binary choice of caring or making money/great tech, which is the great struggle now in the business world.
From an impact perspective, we’d really like to contribute to the technology stack of the energy transition, help with the climate emergency where we can, with management and mitigation via renewable energy systems and efficiency.
We also want to keep pushing on electricity and Internet access for what is sort of euphemistically called “underserved” communities. The former was something we started with, and Internet access plus digital literacy we’ve really gotten into with Microsoft.
We need to include, in relatively short order, the 1–2 billion folks who aren’t currently connected to reliable power or information, for the sake of both stability and justice.
Describe your firm’s culture in 5 words or less.
Intelligence, mutual respect, and heart.