In our second Young Entrepreneurs Programme award winner blog, we speak to RG YEP Social & Environmental Impact Award Winner, Michalis Florides, Founder of Solex, and his RG mentor Stavros Koutsantonis, Managing Director of Conservation Resource Partners.
Michalis and his Solex partner George Georghiou, joined the Young Entrepreneurs Programme through the University of Cyprus and Reload Greece’s partnership with Cyprus Seeds. Solex is developing the next generation intelligent monitoring platform for the early detection of faults in Photovoltaic systems. Photovoltaic technology is a leading solar energy technology, which can be used to combat climate change. By 2050, 69% of the world’s energy will be generated by photovoltaic tech. To maximise this opportunity we need reliable systems, maximum energy output, and to minimise the electricity cost. Unnoticed performance loss has financial impact: 1% of power loss globally results in €0.5 billion lost annually. Solex’s idea is an intelligent monitoring platform for early detection of performance issues with photovoltaic technology. It uses proprietary hardware and intelligent software, offering a low cost, non-intrusive operation with continuous online monitoring maximising energy output and minimising electricity cost, and the team have already filed for a US patent.
The Solex team participated in the RG YEP Ignite workshop at the University of Cyprus in November 2019 and after winning a place on the Accelerate stage of the programme, Stavros Koutsantonis, Managing Director of Conservation Resource Partners, became the team’s dedicated RG mentor from January to March 2020. Stavros has private equity and public markets investor and executive experience, focusing on agriculture / farmland private equity investment strategy.
Interview with Michalis Florides, Founder of Solex
RG: You have a background conducting research in the area of photovoltaics. What first got you interested in this area and how did you come up with the business idea?
Michalis: Renewable energy sources provide clean energy without polluting the environment. The more efficient they are i.e. the more output energy they produce, the less the use of fossil fuels. Photovoltaics captured my attention due to their rapid growth, low cost and the abundant solar energy. I was interested in studying photovoltaics more extensively and while completing a PhD at the FOSS research centre for sustainable energy at the University of Cyprus, I researched detection methods for various faults that occur in high voltage photovoltaic systems. The business idea was captured through this research because an innovative detection method is being developed.
RG: You already have a patent pending for Solex’s product in the US. How did you go about that, and was there a reason you targeted the US first?
Michalis: After receiving funding from Cyprus Seeds, a non-profit organisation in Cyprus whose mission is to support the commercialisation of innovative academic research, an important step before commercialisation is patenting. This was part of the Cyprus Seeds programme and the US was chosen first because the market there is of interest to our business. When the patent is registered in the US, we will register it in Europe as well. We would like to express our gratitude to Cyprus Seeds since this would not have been possible without their support.
RG: What was your main reason for joining RG YEP and what was the most important thing you took from the programme?
Michalis: We joined RG YEP to gain mentoring with mentors who have experience in startups and to access masterclasses on various topics such as IP protection, growth hacking and pitching. These help to prepare a startup on how to approach the market and develop their business plan. The best part of RG YEP was the Pitching in front of investors, which gives an opportunity to raise funding. We were specifically approached by investors and the advice and additional knowledge provide by RG YEP was valuable.
RG: Congratulations on winning the Social & Environmental Impact Award. What does this mean for you personally and the future plans for Solex?
Michalis: The RG YEP award is a reward for the work conducted by us and by our mentors since with their advice we reached this level. The award entails a preliminary brand foundation session by Joe Future, a global strategic studio which helps companies to develop their structure, foundations and messaging. Solex will benefit from this by identifying and coding the fundamentals of the organisation in order to create a brand foundation and working strategy.
RG: You were matched with Stavros Koutsantonis as your RG mentor. Had you worked with a mentor before & what key insights could Stavros offer you from his knowledge and experience in private equity investment strategy.
Michalis: We are working with two US based mentors from Cyprus Seeds and I have to admit that Mr Koutsantonis was another successful match. Beside his advice and guidelines, the way he approached us, lead to a good co-operation and relationship. We followed the mentoring structure provided by RG YEP but Mr Koustantonis was also flexible to discuss any concerns we had. Mr Koustantonis helped us to define and plan our competitor analysis, market approach, market research and financial analysis. He also gave us hints on how to make a good Pitch and become attractive to investors, mentioning that investors look for a low risk investment and that if the product is a patented real world application it helps raising funds. We have not developed our final business plan yet since we are working on the development of our next prototype. However, through the RG YEP journey we received the necessary information on how to approach a business plan. In addition, through the discussions we had, we realised that we can approach the market in different ways but at the same time keep the core of our innovation the same. A big thank you to Mr Koutsantonis for his time and advice.
Interview with Stavros Koutsantonis, RG Mentor
RG: You have a significant background in private equity investment management and strategy. How does this background impact your approach as a mentor?
Stavros: Over the course of my career, I have sat on both sides of the table; both as the party evaluating a potential investment idea, but also as the one attempting to solicit interest in an investment I was pitching. There is a lot of capital out there, but the competition for that capital is fierce. Having a good idea is not enough. An ability to communicate succinctly, make an impression and create a mutually beneficial investment relationship is critical. It is also hard to do. I try to convey that message and make a couple of helpful suggestions to help the mentee, on their own, build that “golden mix” of idea and presentation.
RG: You have a significant background in private equity investment management and strategy. How does this background impact your approach as a mentor? You have a particular focus on agriculture/ farmland/ natural resources. How familiar were you with the photovoltaic technology targeted by Solex’s idea?
Stavros: I was not specifically familiar with the Solex technology, per se. My investment background is in real assets, which includes, among other sectors, power generation and renewables. I have also evaluated and invested in companies that manufacture and install the equipment that goes into the renewable energy generation, as well as the aftermarket services that are required to maintain proper functioning of the renewable energy generation. My attraction to the Solex concept was based on several factors. First, projected growth for renewable energy, especially solar, is strong. Second, as solar energy continues to gain share of the global power generation pie, the demand for aftermarket services related to photovoltaic installations, should increase. Third, in George and Michalis, I saw a team whose technical knowledge was significant but also possessed a track record of commercializing concepts. Finally, the fact that Solex is pursuing a US patent is a clear sign that the team understands the importance of intellectual property as an economic “moat” that will lead to commercial success.
RG: How did the Solex team develop throughout the RG YEP journey and how did you see them benefit from the 1:1 mentoring?
Stavros: The Solex team’s technical knowledge was beyond question. I was not going to add any value there. Consistently throughout our interactions, Solex displayed a willingness to consider an outsider’s perspective. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but they were willing to listen to my ideas and suggestions. Moreover, I believe we quickly established a relationship based on mutual respect and a recognition that we were working towards a common goal. I tried to focus my recommendations on communication – written, verbal and visual. If George and Michalis were able to pick up a useful tip or two from me, then I am thrilled, but you will have to ask them!
RG: What do you personally gain from the RG YEP experience as a mentor?
Stavros: It was rewarding to see the Solex team win the Social Impact Award. The team’s concept does provide a positive social and environmental impact, and it was nice to see that the RG judges agreed with this. As Greece and Cyprus emerge from a long, hard decade, it is encouraging to see business ideas, like Solex, born and subsequently developed into viable enterprises that will eventually lead to job creation and economic growth. Finally, it was a pleasure to work with George and Michalis. I am a big fan of Solex and it will be exciting to root for their continued success.
Thank you to Michalis and Stavros for sharing their RG YEP story. In terms of the team’s immediate next steps, Solex are currently developing the next prototype which will need to be tested. They will be able to conduct tests at their own laboratory, however, as with many startups, lab testing with partners might be affected by the covid-19 pandemic. We will be following Solex’s future entrepreneurial journey with interest. In the meantime, watch this space for more RG YEP interviews and if you would like to participate in an RG programme to help develop your business, applications for our next RG Challenge programme are open now!