Eight19 takes its name from the time it takes sunlight to reach the earth - eight minutes and 19 seconds. It’s mission is to develop the technologies and manufacturing processes that will bring off-grid solar power to a new generation of users, transforming lives and accelerating economic development.Today, there are 1.6Bn people in the world without electricity. The majority live in the world’s most economically deprived communities, where the up-front cost of solar power is unaffordable. Eight19’s printed plastic solar technology is designed to deliver flexible, lightweight, robust and lower cost solar cells for a variety of solar-powered applications.
Today, using IndiGo technology and a mobile phone, Eight19 delivers solar electricity to communities in Africa and India as an affordable pay-as-you-go service. It’s cheaper than kerosene, the most common source of power at present, and much cleaner and safer.
1. What are the origins of the business?
Eight19 was a spin-out from the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University where Richard Friend and his team have pioneered new solar power technology, amongst other things, for many years. The company was formed to exploit a new generation of solar power using printed plastic in place of conventional solar cells (so called ‘organic’ solar cells because the materials are primarily made from ubiquitous carbon). In the last year the company has developed a specific focus of delivering solar power to the fifth of the world’s population that has no electricity, for example to replace expensive and harmful kerosene lamps with clean, solar-powered lighting.
2. What have been your biggest challenges to date?
Creating a new business is always both challenging and exhilarating. With the background from the University, the company had a well defined path but few plans survive the first encounter with the market and unexpected changes in Government policy. The sentiment around solar and desire to get closer to the end application has made us react to new situations and adjust our path. The outcome has worked very well but you have to work extra hard to keep all the stakeholders fully engaged as you adjust course.
3. What do you think sets Eight19 apart from your competitors?
The company has taken a deliberate strategy to get very close to the end customer and develop not just technology but also distribution and novel business models that make the product really work. The result is we have been able to identify specific requirements of our markets and build them into the products. For example, we discovered that users in emerging markets cannot afford the upfront costs of solar power and so we developed a pay-as-you-go business model that allows users to substitute directly their spend on kerosene for spend on solar. This ‘end to end’ approach allows us to operate as a value added manufacturer and not just a supplier into commoditised solar markets.
4. Has Eight19 managed to achieve the targets and milestone objectives it outlined in its initial Business Plan?
Yes, in fact we have gone considerably beyond them both technically and commercially. When you begin a new business, it is difficult to know what the future will hold and that is where having an amazing team of technical and market/commercial expertise allows the business to think beyond conventional boundaries and to execute very rapidly as new opportunities present themselves. It is sometimes hard to believe the business has been going 15 months.
5. How important are the links with the world-renowned Cavendish Laboratory and Richard Friend’s team?
Having a genesis from the University helps a great deal. It provides a level of credibility for the business and is a brand that is instantly recognisable worldwide. We also maintain strong technical links with Cavendish that provide access to the latest research and, of course, an excellent place for technical recruitment. Conversely, the Cavendish is able to point to spin-out companies to demonstrate economic value resulting from fundamental research at the University.
6. What is the scale of the global market opportunity for Eight19 in terms of territories and market sectors?
There are 1.6Bn people world-wide who lack electricity and this number is predicted by the World Bank to be still in excess of 1Bn people in 2030, despite the rate of development of emerging countries. Our growth plans are presently focused on East Africa, where we have deployments in Kenya, Zambia, Malawi and the world’s youngest country, South Sudan. Later this year we will be expanding into West Africa, Southern Africa and India. The market for off-grid power is presently worth in excess of $50Bn so there is everything to play for.
7. You have just embarked on a new fundraising. What are the proceeds intended to fund?
We are still very much a growing business and the funds will be used for a combination of market expansion and technology development.
8. How much headroom is there in the core technology to catalyse new generations of products?
I see no end to the scope here. One of the beauties of being in touch with the end user is they simply tell you what is needed. Often these adaptations can be provided through partners or with small changes to the offer but sometimes they highlight a whole new strand that can be added to the product or service. We strongly encourage innovation around our solutions from both partners and customers.
9. Is it your intention to remain a private company or is there an exit strategy?
My personal view is it is not possible to build a company for exit, or if you try it’s a high risk strategy. Rather, you build a company for value with potential exits in the back of your mind. We have several options when it comes to exit but at the same time we have patient investors who are keen to see the company succeed.
10. Are there any business issues that keep you awake at night?
On a day to day basis, there are of course problems to be solved but that is part of the fun. Other than that, we tend not to worry too much about what might happen as a result of matters outside our control. You don’t win a race by constantly looking backwards.