Nestled away in a quiet Somerville side street, Greentown Labs serves not only as a shelter from the premature reminders of the imminent New England winter—inside, young entrepreneurs brainstorm in a haven for Boston’s most promising clean-tech startups, a creative sanctuary far removed from the grasp of corporate rigidity and static business playbooks. Here, an open-plan office space coupled with standing desks and a fully-outfitted prototyping lab facilitates a natural exchange of ideas. Succulents pop out from desk space dividers.
For many startup founders, Greentown Labs is a place where serious business takes place. For Senthil Balasubramanian and Anthony Occidentale of Sistine Solar, it is an entrepreneurial playground, affording them the freedom to work creatively and draw from a rich diversity of expertise. It is where “mens et manus”—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s motto translating to “mind and hand”—come together to transform neglected notes scribbled in the margins into products that change the way we live in and respond to the world around us.
In the case of Sistine Solar, Balasubramanian and Occidentale aim to reduce the public’s hesitation to adopt solar panels. Information around solar energy is often times hard to understand and not easily accessible for potential buyers. They have devised a “solar skin” film that sits on top of high-efficiency solar panels to display a customizable graphic or to match pre existing roofing shingles. In essence, about 2 percent of the sunlight shone onto the solar panels reflects to create these images. Balasubramanian and Occidentale now act as co-founder and product design lead at Sistine Solar, respectively, but their Odyssean entrepreneurial journeys began early on in life.
Balasubramanian was born in the Indian state of Kerala, which boasts a warm and tropical climate due to its position at the southernmost tip of the continent. As the youngest in his extended family, Balasubramanian learned from an early age that he would have to fight tooth and nail for what he wanted. In fact, he admitted that he was quite boisterous growing up.
“Up until I was 10 years old, I was a very tough kid and threw a lot of tantrums,” Balasubramanian said. “People would sort of run over me, so I couldn’t get what I wanted and that made me frustrated.”
Nevertheless, he found his footing in the sciences, and drew a great deal of inspiration from his father’s involvement with the Indian Space Research Organization. While he ultimately pursued a formal degree in finance through the MIT Sloan School of Management, Balasubramanian built this upon an appreciation for scientific inquiry.
“My dream was to be an astrophysicist,” Balasubramanian said. “A lot of it was because of my dad … I looked up to him a great deal.”
Occidentale, on the other hand, spent his childhood in New Jersey. In high school, he was involved in a multitude of activities ranging from the environmental science club to an art club. While at MIT, he joined the Terrascope learning community, which set out to come up with solutions to the world’s resource crises such as water sanitation. He gravitated toward initiatives that required an interdisciplinary approach, combining science and the arts in creative ways. There were early indications that his future would be in engineering, for he loved to tinker and deconstruct objects just as much as he enjoyed building them.
Yet Occidentale wanted the flexibility to experiment and merge his technical training as a mechanical engineer with an understanding of entrepreneurship. He never saw himself working in a cubicle doing desk engineering work. While studying mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at MIT, he pursued a concentration in product design and development in addition to concurrent courses on entrepreneurship and innovation.
In fact, it was during one of these classes that Occidentale received an email from Sistine Solar, which at the time was an unassuming clean-tech startup that Balasubramanian was looking to populate with interns on a part-time basis. Balasubramanian and Ido Salama, his co-founder at Sistine Solar, had only a half-baked idea of what skills they needed to recruit.
They wanted to bring a clear design element to conventional solar panels by creating a patented thin film, or “solar skin,” that sat atop the panels to display an entirely customizable graphic when in contact with light. But Balasubramanian and Salama needed to build a team. While Occidentale may have been been put off at first by Solar Sistine’s vague recruiting email, there was something inescapably refreshing about the possibility of working in a startup. He could avoid being confined to a unidimensional role and could contribute to both the business and marketing side on top of product design.
“I had never worked for a large company while at MIT,” Occidentale said.“A lot of my friends worked at Tesla, Apple, and Google. I never really found myself wanting to do that. I always wanted to do something on my own. I think it’s the reward that’s associated with [working in a startup].”
Before joining Sistine Solar, Occidentale cultivated his entrepreneurial mindset, “roughing it” with 70-hour weeks to build a headphone startup with a classmate through a program at MIT. While the startup did not take-off in the end, Occidentale extracted important lessons from the experience of building something from scratch. He joined Sistine Solar a little over a year ago and has found that the satisfaction derived from working at an environmentally conscious startup has muted much of the risk associated with the job.
From that point, the Salama and Balasubramanian grew the Solar Sistine team and dove headfirst into a rapid iterative process. They shifted directions about eight or nine times in the early days, moving from solar on sculptures, to a software for architects, to solar on building façades, using market feedback to support their changes. This freedom to, in a sense, fail fast and cheap was due to a couple strokes of luck, one of which was the funding received after winning the Clean Energy Prize at an MIT business plan competition and the Sunshot Initiative from the U.S. Department of Energy.
According to Balasubramanian, the “next big stroke of good fortune” was crossing paths with Occidentale, who brought the design elements that the company needed.
By partnering with contract manufacturers who work directly with homeowners’ looking to install solar panels, Sistine Solar sets aside about a week of lead time to prepare the solar skin designs and complete the job. The printing is then contracted out to printer companies based on the volume of prints needed. Once printed, the solar skins are then shipped out to installer companies with detailed instructions on how to apply them properly and install them on-site. The possibilities are endless in terms of the designs that can be displayed, ranging from mickey mouse to fall foliage to a camouflaged shingle aesthetic.
Herein lies the point of differentiation between Sistine Solar and other similar ideas such as Tesla’s Solar Roof. Its patented film allows for a far more expansive range of design options that work under multiple lighting conditions and can be visualized digitally. In many ways, Balasubramanian and Occidentale hope to change public perception and inertia in adoption surrounding solar by making it fit harmoniously into a building’s aesthetic profile.
“Electricity is just not sexy,” Balasubramanian said. “No one wakes up saying ‘Yeah, I can’t wait to turn on my light bulb.’ We’re at this very important point in humanity where, if we don’t switch to renewable sources, we’re in real danger [of hurting] our very existence.”
In working toward this cultural paradigm shift, the team at Sistine Solar encountered their fair share of shortcomings. They welcomed failures, serving as valuable opportunities to step back, assess the results in relation to the company’s core value of creative freedom, and reimagine the way in which they do business. At the beginning, they felt that their true potential was held back by the larger, more conservative companies with which they partnered with. Now, Sistine Solar has found success in selling direct-to-consumer instead. Balasubramanian holds that idea generation is far more fluid with this setup, giving his team the creative freedom to think outside the box and blur the disciplinary lines that exist in bigger companies.
“I like to give a lot of freedom,” Balasubramanian said. “The best ideas come when everyone is free to express themselves.”
As the startup grows, Sistine Solar continues to weave these company values into the fabric that knits their respective skills together. Sistine Solar takes a design-thinking approach, incorporating as many different voices into their decision-making process as possible. They’ve worked with color scientists, cognitive scientists, and optics and material scientists. The creative lead for Sistine Solar, Samantha Holmes, has brought her extensive experience in mosaic and visual design as an art student in Italy to a company that is on a mission to change our relationship with solar.
Sistine Solar hopes to transform solar panels into an accessible and harmonious home improvement option instead of a mysterious black box. One step at a time, piece by piece, Balasubramanian and Occidentale have visions for the future that involve clean energy. They are currently in the process of developing an Augmented Reality app that will allow homeowners interested in installing solar panels to digitally visualize how it would actually look on their roof.
In the meantime, Balasubramanian, Occidentale and the rest of the team will be in Greentown Labs, soaking up all the sun they can.
Featured Image by Solar Sistine