Forbes: Climate Tech Startup Helps Disaster Recovery With Mobile Renewable Energy Grid
November 2, 2022
The article "Climate Tech Startup Helps Disaster Recovery With Mobile Renewable Energy Grid" was published in Forbes on November 2, 2022 and written by Geri Stengel.
The global market for climate tech was $13.8 billion in 2021 and is expected to jump to $147.5 billion by 2032, according to Future Market Insights. One reason for rise is responding to climate change.
In 2022, 15 weather/climate disasters occurred in the U.S., causing tens of billions of dollars in damage, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. "I had to do something about it," exclaimed Lauren Flanagan, cofounder, CEO, and head of strategy at Sesame Solar. Her company is helping communities respond with a mobile, renewable, off-grid solution for disaster relief and rebuilding.
Most current solutions use fossil fuels, including diesel, which compounds the environmental damage. "[As a lifelong entrepreneur,] I thought I could figure out a way to make it fast to deploy and easy to set up in minutes," said Flanagan. Innovating clean energy, Sesame has developed a solar and green energy solution that is versatile, scalable, and portable.
Climate Change Is Inevitable: Adapt or Perish
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina opened Flanagan's eyes to how unprepared the U.S. was to handle climate disasters. Her concerns grew as she watched the damage caused by wildfires in her native California. Victims and emergency responders need access to power and communications reestablished quickly for general needs, housing, and medical facilities.
In 2017, Flanagan, along with Namit Jhanwar, cofounder, COO, and head of solutions and engineering; and Adam Kasefang, cofounder, VP, and head of product manufacturing started building Sesame Solar's prototype. It generates power, purifies water, provides communications, and provides backup power for critical infrastructure.
When Hurricane Maria hit, they were ready. "Island nations are probably the most at risk from climate change," said Flanagan. They had planned to go to Puerto Rico but were advised by Virgin Unite, Richard Branson's foundation, to go to the island of Dominica because most everyone was focused on Puerto Rico.
They deployed a nanogrid—a local, self-sufficient power generator—for a hospital in the capital. Then another for a small clinic in a remote part of the island. It not only provided power, but it also filtered water. Mobile nanogrids can help communities get back on their feet faster than ever. The company's mission is to make clean energy accessible, reliable, and affordable after a disaster.
In 2021, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Sesame moved two systems to staging areas in Home Depot parking lots in two communities in Louisiana. People could charge their phones or buy a new one, access WiFi, take a shower, and use the toilets.
Sesame Solar's renewable-power nanogrids were deployed by Comcast—by way of Sesame's reseller partner, EnerSys—in Fort Myers, Florida, after Hurricane Ian struck. The units powered trailers of toilets, showers, laundry, and more, and were used daily by 300 residents and first responders.
The company recently launched the world's first 100% renewable, mobile emergency-response nanogrid. It delivers electric power indefinitely—without needing diesel-powered generation—via complementary solar and hydrogen-fuel-cell technologies.
Sesame is working with the Air Force to build two green hydrogen nanogrids to be tested in their more rigorous Department of Defense environment.
Sesame has raised $2 million from VSC Ventures, Morgan Stanley, Pax Angels, and Belle Capital. The company has also received Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the Air Force.
Sesame Solar Nanogrids qualify for 30% tax credits and/or direct payments as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. If deployed in disadvantaged communities or tribal nations, tax credits and/or direct payments may increase up to 50%.
As a SasS pioneer, no surprise Flanagan is working on a pay only for what use model to scale the company. Mobile nanogrids that provide medical, water, power, and communications will be pre-positioned before expected extreme weather events. The nanogrids could be used in tribal nations or disadvantaged communities when not used for disaster relief.
"Our supply chain has been challenging since the pandemic," said Flanagan. "We want everything made in the U.S...and to be of high quality. We did a lot of searching and relationship building."
Sesame is based in Jackson, Michigan. Fortunately, there is a high concentration of manufacturers in the Midwest, which makes it easier to source suppliers. Having vendors nearby also saves time and money in shipping.
"Finding talent has been difficult, too," said Flanagan. As an early-stage company, Sesame can't compete with mid- and large-sized companies' salaries. Manufacturers also need many trade skills like drilling, welding, and fabricating, which are a source of talent for Sesame.
The company's mission resonates with vendors and workers alike. "We're trying to get some of our nanogrids donated to Ukraine to help the Ministry of Public Health," said Flanagan. Helping Ukraine brought tears to one of the company's foremen, who said, "that would be so great."
It Takes A Village To Scale A Company
With three decades of experience in founding and operating technology companies, Sesame isn't Flanagan's first rodeo. She knows the importance of having a solid support network and is relying on two of the best to build hers out.
Flanagan was part of Springboard Enterprise's first cohort in 2000 and has remained active with the group ever since. Springboard is a global network of entrepreneurs, investors, and advisors accelerating the success of female founders in technology and life sciences. In 2004, she joined its National Council of Advisors; in 2006, she started investing in Springboard alums and, in 2007, became a member of its board. "Springboard has offered me transformational learnings and enduring friendships with some of the most amazing women in the world," said Flanagan.
Hardware companies take a lot of capital to scale. While Flanagan has experience raising equity financing and investing in startups, she doesn't have experience raising large amounts of debt, which as a hardware company, Sesame will require. "That's part of why we went to the Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab," said Flanagan. It's an intensive five-month accelerator designed to help further develop and scale startups.
"My motto is 'always be learning,'" Flanagan said. "I'm talking to Morgan Stanley about the best financing structure [for $100 million in debt financing] and how to create a business model for portable renewable power as a service. These are complex things that I haven't done before."
The goal is to scale production and distribute the systems and support to needy communities.
How are you using your mission to attract talent, suppliers, and investors?