Every now and again, you run across a refreshingly different startup coming from the Berlin scene. Going against the overwhelming trend of internet and mobile startups is Solarbrush, a hardware product that isn’t limited to an iPhone or laptop screen. Solarbrush wants to eliminate a challenging problem facing the renewable energy industry – how to keep solar panels in hot, dusty or sandy areas clean and working at 100 per cent.
We caught up with founder, Ridha Azaiz to find out how his passion for solar energy led him to create his robot at the tender age of 13 and why he’s been happy working as a one-man show for the past 15 years…
Hi Ridha, who are you and what are you doing?
Hi, I’m Ridha and I am the founder of Solarbrush, a robot that cleans dirt and sand off solar panels. I created the robot because solar power systems are so much less effective when they are dirty – they only produce two thirds of their power.
It’s really important to have a cleaning system in the ‘Sunbelt Countries’ like Morocco and Saudi Arabia or Arizona and California, where solar panels are also most useful. There, sand deposits are a major problem for solar panels. So my robot brushes sand and dust from them until all the particles fall into the gaps away from each panel and onto the ground, and I am the only one cleaning them in this way.
How did you come across your idea?
It was a personal challenge to clean the solar panel I had on my balcony for a school research project. I was 13 at the time and I read an article about the problems with cleaning, which inspired me. I got microcontrollers – tiny computers that controlled the robot, to solve the cleaning problems. I won an internship at Bosch and while doing that I was able to build the first unit. It took a year to do, because I was still at school.
When did your passion for renewable energy begin?
It began in my childhood, it’s been a very long journey. I am the first to make service robots for solar panels – I invented them when the market was still extremely limited. Back then, my robots were wired and complex, so since then I’ve worked on lowering the complexity over the years. It’s been a lifelong passion, basically.
Who are the founders and what have you done before?
I am a mechanical engineer. So far, I’ve only been working on my own. I am trying to team up with someone at the moment – someone who is in the solar industry already. Because the industry is going bust in Germany at the moment, I am trying to get the experts from there. I’m looking for native English speakers for my target market, too. It’s getting easier to find people, the startup events I went to really drove my publicity. People approach me now.
I was a one-man show for such a long time because it would’ve been too hard to team up during university as I feel you’re overloaded with the new Bachelor/Master system. People don’t spend time doing their own projects. If you could combine what you get credit points for at university with your own projects that would help the startup ecosystem in Germany.
What makes you different from everyone else?
I have a competitor in Switzerland, but they actually copied the idea from me in 2008. But as long as they don’t copy my drive, I don’t mind. I don’t consider them competition, they are so expensive and complex. And they need to use water to clean too – which is so expensive. I just swipe off the dust before it builds up. The competitor’s is very complex, they need a crane to lift it on the panels because it weighs 40kg.
I only consider manual cleaning a real competitor because the other ones are just too expensive.
What is your business model?
One of my robots will cost about $3000. But due to economies of scale, I can lower this, it rapidly gets cheaper if you order 100. I’m already getting requests from operators and engineers, so once my robot is ready for the market, I just need to connect the dots.
Who is financing you?
I haven’t received a financing round yet. But I won the hy! Berlin award, which was €10,000 plus a trip to Silicon Valley and mentoring from hub:raum. I am also in talks with potential investors. Through hy! Berlin I got to know and am still in touch with a great network of people. And I want to get in touch with Peter Thiel on my trip to Silicon Valley – that’s my biggest aim.
Is there something that you missing?
I need financing, but I’m in talks about that. I still want to keep Solarbrush lean. What I’ve been working on for years was simplifying my tech and now I’d be happy if I could work on simplifying my paperwork when it comes to financing.
I also need a good team, especially a salesman that looks like one. I have one in mind, he’s around 50 years old and from a big German company. It’s the mentality in the regions I’m targeting, if you look too young in the Middle East you are not as effective as a salesman.
Have you had any difficulties entering the market in the Middle East?
No, it has been quite easy. Many European companies are building solar generators there, which makes it easier for me as the companies in the region tend to be more international than European or German ones are. What gave me a confidence boost was my trip to Abu Dhabi, I drive a lot of crowds at trade shows there.
It’s good that I am not focusing on the industry in Germany, as it is facing major problems. From a tech perspective, American cells are more advanced and the Chinese are cheaper. The price has dropped by 50 per cent since 2009 – so solar cells get so cheap the German companies can’t keep up with it and can’t invest in the research. But the price drop is good for me as I am targeting the sunbelt countries, where solar is growing massively.
Who would you like to have a lunch with and what would you talk about?
Larry Page, he’s a mechanical engineer like me and runs a software company. I’d like to talk to him about how he built up a software company when he is a mechanical engineer, doing something so different is exciting for me. Or Peter Thiel. I still plan on somehow meeting him in the US!
Any advice you’d give for fellow startups?
Keep it lean and simple, keep it straight and ask people to talk straight to you – it’s not helpful if they only talk positives with you. I also believe you shouldn’t begin a startup until you have a solid concept – don’t take risks on products that don’t work properly.
Where will you be in a years time?
I could be rich if it goes on the market. That’s the plan now, to be on the market within a year.
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