The Forty2 solar generator sold by Peppermint Energy.

Startup takes idea into production

Published in The Argus Leader/Sioux Falls Business Journal on June 12, 2013.

Peppermint Energy has started manufacturing its flagship product, the Forty2 solar generator, through Sencore Inc.

And while the product originates in South Dakota, Peppermint Energy executives say there’s a worldwide market.

“Think of it as a solar generator, just like you would think of a gas generator or diesel generator you get at Home Depot,” CEO Brian Gramm said. “The end result is the same thing in that when you want plugged-in, ready power, there it is.”

But there are major differences between the Forty2 and traditional generators. Gasoline and diesel generators produce noise and the smell of fuel, Gramm said. They also cost money to use because of the ongoing costs of fuel and maintenance of moving parts. The Forty2 generates power through the sun, stores it in lithium ion batteries and sends that power to devices or household appliances through typical power cord plug-ins.

“The end result is an all-in-one unit,” Gramm said. “Now, your ongoing cost to operate it is zero. There’s no moving parts in here, so there’s nothing to maintain. It makes no sound when it runs.”

Partnering locally

Peppermint Energy launched the Forty2 last year on the crowd-source platform Contributors pledged more than $83,000 in 28 days, surpassing the company’s $25,000 goal. Those who gave $500 got a first-run version of the product.

“We used the Kickstarter less as a tool to raise some funds and more as a way to go out to the market and get the market feedback of what do people actually want, how are they going to use it, so that before we went into production, we already would have answers to that,” Gramm said. “Our approach was that by the time we’re getting around to make it, we already know exactly what people want. This is very different than a lot of the ways people go about building a new product or bringing something to the market.”

To manufacture the Forty2, Peppermint found a willing partner in Sencore.

“We’ve always had the mission of doing as much of this work as we can locally in South Dakota and in the region,” said Chris Maxwell, Peppermint Energy president. “Let’s not go thousands of miles away if we’ve got someone right out our back door, and Sencore happened to be right out our back door.”

Sencore designs, manufactures and sells video content delivery systems.

“We produce product that is used for the distribution of video and audio, so anywhere from the studio, the camera, all the way to the house. We can be anywhere in that chain as part of the equipment moving video and audio around,” said Dana Nachreiner, vice president of engineering and operations.

Because Sencore designs and manufactures its own products, Nachreiner said the company has the engineering know-how and the equipment for mass production, a contract service it provides through a division to companies such as Peppermint Energy.

“They have a great idea for a consumer and commercial product. We have the capability to manufacture for them,” Nachreiner said. “Because I have access to my engineering team, I can also do some value-add engineering. We were able to make suggestions on design changes that might improve our quality or robustness of the design. We also try to impact the manufacturability, drive costs down and yields up. Those are all very good things to do as you go to market.”

Gramm said Sencore’s expertise strengthened the final product.

“In Sencore, we feel they have a great view from which to suggest improvements,” he said. “We have certainly leveraged them to help us make the product better and add some features that customers were looking for that maybe weren’t in our original design.”

Promising markets

Gramm and Maxwell said the emergency situation and disaster recovery market is one area that has a use for the Forty2, which is available in three battery-size options that retail between $1,500 and $2,500.

They also have interest from outdoor enthusiasts, including hikers, campers and tailgaters, along with people working on do-it-yourself projects where power isn’t available.

The product also has gained attention on an international level.

“We have received an enormous amount of interest from developing countries, countries where there is no grid power,” Gramm said. “This unit is strong enough to provide the sole source of power for a home in Haiti.”

Peppermint Energy took the Forty2 to Haiti earlier this year, and executives praised its performance.

“There’s just people living every day without access to reliable power,” Maxwell said. “Many countries and individuals around the world are looking at, ‘How can I look at a different way to get a sustainable, reliable, powerful energy source?’ With the need for power around the world and the mobile lives we live — the connected lives we live — we look to find alternative ways to get energy into people’s hands that … fill in those spaces in the world where either people choose to be off the grid or anywhere around the world where there isn’t a choice for a grid.”

Peppermint Energy has found success, Gramm said, because it has overcome hurdles encountered by other solar energy devices: They were too big.

“As a culture, we tend to think about making things bigger, bigger, bigger, so as such, we were taking some technologies that was probably better suited for smaller scale and trying to force it to be bigger,” he said.

“We kind of realized that maybe that’s not the best use of the technology, so we set about trying to understand, trying to figure out a way that we could take this technology and make it light, portable, and take it to where the power is needed rather than the other way around.”

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