Interview with Thibault Lesueur – Co Founder & CMO Solaris Offgrid – Solaris Tanzania (*)
What constraints are preventing the inter-operable off-grid appliances market from ramping up? and what could be done to overcome them?
The number one issue is plugging. There are different plugs and plugging systems, as they are ultimately defined by the manufacturers of solar systems. This limits expansions and constrains users to remain captive within the proprietary systems developed by such manufacturers.
At Solaris Offgrid we promote the adoption of a “neutral” plugging protocol. We are currently developing one mandated by the organisation Efficiency 4 Access (and being financed by UKAID) to develop an opensource one in order to facilitate collaboration across the industry players. This open source protocol is already in its testing phase. We believe that inter-operability breeds efficiency and enlarges the freedom of choice for the final user, which in addition will result in easier access to finance.
Having a standard plugging protocol will allow manufacturers to sell more accessories to a larger group of users, possibly there will be more competition but at the same time, this will foster the creation of more plugging products.
How does Solaris Offgrid envision to address the Productive Use Leveraging Solar Energy market?
The Open Paygo Token makes vertical markets accessible for the end-user, i.e. promotes and helps their financing. Markets such as water, mobility, sanitation, med tech, etc. targeted at BOP users will become accessible through the adoption of Pay As You Go (PAYGO) payment mechanisms. We promote the adoption of an open-source PAYGO mechanism as a form to broaden financing, enable the owners of data to share it widely and improve the tracking of users’ credit history across different products. This is really about providing value to the end-user and enabling impact beyond the use of solar energy, without detriment to the privacy and confidentiality of the information. We have developed a payment protocol that meets EU GDRP standards and that will enable end-users to add value to their credit records, should they decide to share them.
Will preventive analytics help reduce PAYG credit risk?
When we discuss machine learning, there is always this debate between the need for a lot of data vs. useful data. We have to keep in mind that the end-users of the PAYGO solutions mostly live in informal economies. They have no credit history, thus there is no proof about the usefulness, veracity or accuracy of any information that they voluntarily contribute. The principle of ‘garbage-in / garbage-out‘ clearly applies to these situations.
Predictive credit models are being designed by several solar PAYGO operators, including Solaris Offgrid. We are interested in providing value for the end-user through the data that we collect, beyond up-selling. We look to create a virtuous cycle, such as the one that BrightLife and Baobab+ bring to their users while combining PAYGO with micro-financing, or being able to offer them additional freebies such as insurance, similarly to what PEG Africa does.
Even though the most reliable data comes from telemetry, i.e. from tracking use, and despite the widespread belief that ‘data is the new oil‘, we acknowledge the limits and constraints imposed by the context in which we operate. We do not want to impose any costs on the end-users since they already go to great strides to afford the electricity. We thus promote software solutions that favor the sharing of data and the spreading of costs among multiple providers.
Today we have implemented automated payment reminders, and we can accurately predict who will pay and who will fail. What we are trying to do now goes beyond early action, we are trying to compile customer identity patterns that will let us anticipate who will be a good client based on weak signals such as his/her profession, location, consumption patterns, etc.
Today every product is speaking its own language in the paygo world, making their adoption harder. With OpenPaygo Token we have created the Esperanto of paygo, under an open source methodologyThibault Lesueur – Co Founder & CMO Solaris Offgrid
(*) I am an investor in Solaris Offgrid
Why don’t you have a 100% impact portfolio in which all your asset classes are deployed in impact investments?
When I started investing I didn’t care a lot whether my investments had any positive impact or not; this was just an afterthought held somewhere in the back of my mind. I just was squarely driven by greed and mainly focused on identifying promising startups with engaged founders, a large addressable market, good product-market fit and the possibility to scale quickly.
My initial plan was to put some chips in startups raising funds at seed-stage and to eventually double down on the most promising follow-up rounds. I had no explicit financial returns requirements, but based on public information that I had gathered about angel investment return averages, I expected that on aggregate my investments could be returned at least 2-3x within 7-10 years.
As possibly many other impact investors, I didn’t discard per se the idea of supporting impact-oriented startups or social enterprises, it was just that I didn’t want to impose on myself any unnecessary constraints since that would likely result in additional time devoted to research.
Another reason – once again acknowledging that I practically didn’t make any efforts to identify any worthy impact investment opportunities – was that most of the startups that I initially interviewed were:
- trying to solve a problem that didn’t connect with any transcendental human problem, nevertheless offered a good risk/return opportunity (Weezic, Nudge, Fidzup, etc.); or
- addressing valuable socio-environmental challenges but spooking investors by announcing projected return targets less enticing than the vast majority of other non-impact-oriented startups.
At a certain point, probably associated with my mid-life crisis, I realized that my money could have a lot “more bang for the buck” if it went into impact investments. I was inspired by the idea promoted by Toniic T100 of deploying 100% of my investments – across all asset classes – in alignment with my social priorities, in pursuit of a deeper positive net impact and using the whole spectrum of my capital to do so.
We normally are embarking on a long journey when trying to change our minds about anything including why and how we invest. Personally, having a 100% impact portfolio is still work in progress(*) rather than a ticked off goal. Nevertheless, I now have a simple rule for any new seed investments which is also quite a high hurdle: it has to be impact-focused.
When you get to 100%, that’s when the real journey startsToni Johnson formerly at Heron Foundation
(*) This is the impact section of my current startup portfolio.
In their first post, they mentioned that:
“There are resources we can point you to for the cold start. Paul Graham wrote a piece called “How to be an Angel Investor.” There’s “How to be an Angel Investor, Part 2” on Venture Hacks. There’s a course called Future Investor. You can look at all of those for the basics.“
I am more of a “learning by doing” type. Even though I am a lawyer and studied business and finance in grad school, I started learning about seed investing by joining a group of angel investors, initially investing small sums along with them, until I was confident enough to identify, research, perform the valuation and negotiate seed investments on my own.
Joining a syndicate in Angelist is one of the easiest and initially least expensive ways to start investing in startups. There are many equity-based crowdfunding platforms oriented to impact investments in Europe. Some of my favorites, since they are more impact investing focused, are:
Over-prepare, choose carefully and invest confidentlyNickMoran from New Stack Ventures
(*) I’m an investor.
The companies in my impact portfolio provide some clear examples:
- Solaris Offgrid is in the business of selling solar home systems in Tanzania to provide access to energy to isolated villages and also supplies the software enabling kitchen stoves to become Pay as you Go (PAYG) systems, replacing polluting and more expensive fuel alternatives.
- Agripolis is building the world’s largest urban farm, reducing the time product travels to the time it takes it to collect it from the rooftop.
In sum, social enterprise takes a broken ecosystem, often where money is already inefficiently exchanging hands, and tries to make it better—with the ultimate goal of improving the life of the target population in a financially sustainable way.
Reversing the approach to the definition given above, you get “conscious capitalism“. Conscious capitalism is a way of thinking about capitalism and business that better reflects where we are in the human journey, the state of our world today, and the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world. The two key factors are purpose, and stakeholder orientation. The interaction between these factors results in conscious leadership and a conscious culture.
I wonder if we may soon see any social enterprise IPO?.
Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits, but the animating force for achieving themLarry Fink,CEO of BlackRock
I have invested several times in some of these companies, at different stages of their life cycle.
Similarly to any other risk allocation decision, I try to hedge against company-specific risks (i.e. non Beta) by diversifying, which may bring my returns closer to market returns, nevertheless, I am happy forego potential upside in exchange for avoiding excessive concentration of my risk while missing on some opportunities, i.e. abandoning the chance to play the soothsayer.
When it comes down to deciding on the right ticket size, I operate based on the following allocation criteria:
- Are the results there? Why is this time different? How has the startup performed since the last round?. Can it scale up? If it is not growing, I would most likely pass – founders are generally great story tellers.
- What would I need to invest to keep my pro-rata? The current number of shares in proportion to the issued shares and voting rights.
- Risks – Do I have an edge? (informational; analytical or behavioral).
Other allocation rules that I follow:
- I try to limit my overall allocation to startups, i.e. including follow up rounds, to less than 10% of my net worth.
- The aggregate initial investment in startups is limited to 5% of my net worth.
- For the first time in investment in any startup, not more than 1% of my net worth – this is kind of the Jason Calacanis‘ approach, if you have 50k to invest, do 30 x 1k investments and keep 20k for follow up in 2-3 of the better performing startups.
- Ensure that I already have or know that I will have within less than six months of the date of investment, at least the same amount that I would invest, for follow up rounds.
We’re going to try to trim our weeds and water our flowers. Most of all, we’re not going to think too much about our weeds. We’re going to be watering our flowers.David Gardner
Interview with Sameer Ranjan Jaiswal, co-founder and CTO FAE Bikes (*)
Logistics/last-mile delivery: what is your competitive advantage?
We are creating a niche for ourselves in the last mile logistics segment. Last-mile logistics using two-wheelers is a $10Bn+ market in India. Converting to electric offers a lot of economic and environmental benefits. Today, the demand conveyed to us from just the top 5 companies who utilize last mile logistics is 100k+. We are currently partnered with 8 companies like Quikr, Zomato & Swiggy (top 2 food delivery companies in India).
We are focused on providing a platform to facilitate the last-mile logistics using smart electric two-wheelers. With this platform, we enable the fleet operators to remain asset-light. At the same time, we take away their headache of vehicle maintenance to focus on their core business. Our partners need not deal with the hassles of paperwork and insurance. We provide a dashboard which allows them to track their fleet utilization and KPIs of their delivery personnel. Traditional mechanics don’t have the skills and knowledge to repair electric vehicles. On-demand road-side assistance gives our partners a peace of mind about using our electric two-wheelers. Our biggest competitive advantage, however, is our charging infrastructure. For many of our partners, their regular run goes beyond the vehicle range. This acts as the biggest barrier in them adopting electric vehicles. Hence, our battery swapping service and charging station network is essential for them to continue their operations.
Could you source all the energy for the chargers from renewable sources ?
India is making huge strides towards renewable energy. We recently crossed 80 GW of renewable energy capacity which contributes to 23% of the total capacity. However, it is currently difficult to source all the energy from renewable sources for the charging stations. Power industry is heavily regulated and power distribution and transmission utilities are natural monopolies protected by the Government. However, it is possible to partner with power transmission companies or power generation companies to source the power directly from renewable sources. But the costs of laying the infrastructure is enormous and makes it practically impossible.
Currently, there is a complete lack of charging infrastructure in India. India’s requirements can be mostly closely compared with China due to similar population. By June 2019, India had just 150 charging station vs 5 million charging points in China. This difference needs to be bridged if EVs are to become mainstream in India. We, at FAE, believe this can be done only by bringing the public as stakeholders into the system. Hence, we are installing charging stations by partnering with the general public and local business owners. This also means that we cannot currently source all the energy from renewable sources as we are dependent on the electricity connections available at their location.
For further reading on this topic, Is India ready for electric vehicles?
I am an investor in FAE Bikes
I try to follow certain ”rules” both for the selection of the startups and for the allocation of funds within my startup investment portfolio. These rules are not written in stone for me, nevertheless, I try to adhere to them as much as my human nature (greed and fear) allows me, i.e. I follow a heuristic approach to investing acknowledging that even 1% discretion in the decision making, means that in the end such decisions are entirely discretionary.
With regards to the criteria for selection; you will probably get my attention if you are a startup raising funds for:
- Seed investment up to Series A (as Jason Calacanis says: such startup should be in the “ Goldilocks Zone, not too hot, not too cold “; beyond an idea and before you start executing your international expansion phase) ;
- Have at least a successful pilot (best if paid by the end users) and ideally some market traction ;
- Actual revenue of at least $60-$100k pa, $5k in MRR + with growth m/o/m ;
- Depending on the market and product / service, pre-money valuation between $1-5m ;
- Impact related – solving a major problem ;
- There are other companies working on similar issues ;
- Trustable founder(s), strong technical team ;
- Scalable ;
- As little capital intensive as possible ;
- Ideally has received a patent or applied for one (although this is more to signal to the customers than a value adder);
- The startup has received nonrefundable grants, access to debt.
With regards to the criteria for allocation within my portfolio of investments:
- I try to limit my allocation to startups, including potential follow up rounds, to less than 10% of my net worth.
- The aggregate initial investment in startups -as an asset class – is limited to 5% of my net worth.
- For the first time in investment in any startup, not more than 1% of my net worth
- Ensure that I already have sufficient liquidity or know that I will have within less than six months of the date of investment, at least the same amount that I would invest, for follow up rounds.
Which rules do you follow? – Please leave a comment
I also found the following criteria from other investors:
1. Are the founders top 0.01% entrepreneurs?
2. What does this team understand about the market that other teams don’t?
3. What is the biggest risk to the company, and can the team solve it?
4. If it works, how big of an impact will this company have?
My current investment thesis is based on a combination of :
since such combination could open the door to the financing goods and services for approximately 1-2 billion persons currently living at the bottom of the pyramid.
Marc Andreesen has recently said in a podcast – please note that I am just paraphrasing here – that humanity is nowadays at a time when it is historically most connected, and that in the next years we will experience the benefits of going from isolated thought systems to globally inter-connected systems.
Inspired by Marc, I firmly believe that if we combine:
- an increasingly inter-connected population located in emerging markets – enabled by inter-operable systems rather than tolerating that such information be kept behind walled gardens – with
- a .i . / data driven finance
we could soon expect to add billions of consumers/producers to the global economy, despite the fact that such persons do not have a credit record, ids, any significant assets, etc.
In sum, I am looking to add to my impact portfolio, seed stage startups active in frontier or emerging markets that are capable of mining smartphone behavioral data to create mobile users credit profiles, similar to: