Events & Media

Eco-Entrepreneurship Project Advances to Semifinals
of National Business Competition
Team SunShares prepares to compete in April at Walmart’s Arkansas headquarters

February 25, 2013

Santa Barbara, CA — For the second consecutive year, a team of Bren School students in the Eco-Entrepreneurship (Eco-E) focus has made it to the semifinal round of the national Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge.

SunShares group members (from left): Ari Michelson, Ryan Del Rosario, Linda Kwong, Caroline Cochran and James Brady (all MESM 2013).

SunShares, which seeks to expand solar energy generation by pooling resources to build shared solar arrays, came out on top of the southwest regional competition, held Feb. 15 at Bren Hall. Group members James Brady, Caroline Cochran, Ryan Del Rosario, Linda Kwong and Ari Michelson (all MESM 2013) will next compete against other regional winners in the semifinal round, scheduled for April 17-19 at Walmart’s home offices in Bentonville, Arkansas.

In the regionals, SunShares went up against another Bren Eco-E project, Smarty Pants, as well as teams from Colorado State University and Brigham Young University, Idaho. Each team presented for 30 minutes before a judging panel made up of  Marty Gilbert, director of the Walmart energy team; Kathleen Long, chief operating office at Solular LLC; and John Mendez, principal of Mendez Strategy Group, Inc. The judges convened for ten minutes after each presentation, and then gathered for a final evaluation before announcing the winner.

Gilbert said that all four judges chose SunShares as the winner.“What I find in winning teams is the combination of business acumen and an entrepreneurial spirit. The Bren School provides a blueprint for the kinds of teams Walmart is looking for,” Gilbert explained. “Their presentation was on point, and we felt that they have the skillset to present in front of the Fortune 10s of the world, which is what they’ll get at the semifinals,”

Walmart representative and judge Marty Gilbert (left) discusses next steps with SunShares after they won the regional competition at Bren Hall.

Gilbert was referring to the fact that the judges in Bentonville will likely come from some of world’s ten largest corporations, all of which have supply-line offices in Bentonville. He said that companies clamor to have a judge at the competition, for the chance to meet and recruit smart young entrepreneurs from around the country.

The SunShares business model is intended to expand solar-energy production by overcoming barriers to individual investment, such as the cost of installing a solar array on a house, the possible need to cut trees that shade a roof, or the fact that renters have no incentive to invest in a home they don’t own. By pooling their resources, groups of up to thirty people could build an array on  a local host site and share the costs and benefits. In its current phase of development, SunShares is focusing on working with independent grocery stores to host the shared arrays.

The individuals who pool their money (SunShares investors) derive their economic benefit in two ways: first, from federal tax/depreciation incentives and second, from the sale of electricity to the grocery store. The tax benefits enable investors to recoup nearly 60 percent of their investment in the first year and the rest over the next five years. The LLC of investors sells the electricity generated by the system to the grocery store. The grocery store benefits by paying less for electricity over the lifetime of the project, and by having a stronger community presence, as those who invest in the solar project have a financial interest in the continued sucess of the store.

Eco-E program manager Emily Cotter thought the group performed well in responding to questions from the judges, two of whom have significant experience with solar projects.

“SunShares did an exceptional job of handling challenging questions from the judging panel,” she said. “This was probably the toughest panel they have encountered yet, so they should feel confident going into the next round.”

Going forward, Gilbert and the other judges will coach and mentor the team members as they fine-tune the business model for the Arkansas competition. Gilbert says he takes that work seriously.

“I’m very competitive,” he said. “I’ve had two teams come in second and one finish third, but I’ve never had a team win the competition, and I want to win.”

Immediately after the winner was announced, the SolarShares team was huddled with Gilbert talking over next steps and strategy.

“We’re looking forward to the mentorship of Marty and the other judges,” Michelson said. “Given their expertise in the solar industry, we feel they can provide valuable insights to improve our model and prepare us for the semifinals.”

The Walmart challenge features a $20,000 grand prize, a $10,000 first prize, and a $5,000 second prize as seed money to help launch the winning businesses. SunShares and the other regional winners receive a $3,000 stipend to support their travel and lodging for the Arkansas event.

The evaluation criteria for the remaining eight projects are profitability (25 points), sustainability (35 points), financial understanding (15 points), market opportunity (10 points), distinctive competence (10 points), and management capability (5 points), for a total of 100 points.

“It feels great to be moving forward,” said Michelson. “We are honored to be representing Bren at the next level.”