Clean energy is a tough business. As entrepreneur Eric Smith put it, we’re really good at leveling mountains and burning coal. So competing with coal and natural gas on price will require every ounce of innovation we can muster.
But unlike information technology, energy technology is often expensive to prototype. For some energy innovations, the prototyping stage is so fraught with expense and uncertainty that it becomes a barrier, preventing good ideas from achieving commercial success.
For the past few years, I’ve studied clean energy prototyping. Much of my work has been with startups, including several in the Boston area. I’ve helped companies design and build prototypes, and interviewed founders on the challenges they faced during the prototyping process. Many of the same themes keep cropping up, so I’ve put together a review of some of the most common mistakes to avoid:
The “chicken and egg” problem:
This is the fundamental challenge of prototyping: A startup needs funds to finance prototype construction–but raising those funds without having a functional prototype to show to investors presents a daunting challenge. This is especially important in energy, where the cost of an early prototype can easily exceed $100,000. There isn’t really any way around this, except to make prototyping as cost-effective as possible, so keep reading.
Don’t allow small problems to become big ones:
Startups, justifiably, are sometimes so busy accomplishing the impossible that they make expensive, time-consuming peripheral oversights. If your startup builds, for example, solar panels, then you might be justifiably less concerned with, say, the racks the panels sit on. But, really, your startup is just as dependent upon a viable racking technology as it is upon a viable panel technology–if the racks don’t work, no one’s going to be very interested. Moreover, off-the-shelf solutions are often somewhat inadequate, because, after all, this is a new technology you’re developing.
Example: One startup I worked with was so busy worrying about large, prominent prototype components that several smaller parts weren’t ordered until the rest of the prototype was nearly complete. These components had been designed by an intern, and the designs were never deemed significant enough to be reviewed by a more experienced engineer. But because they needed the parts now, the drawings were rushed out, and the parts manufactured based on the existing drawings. In the end, the parts were expensive to produce and had design flaws, causing a ripple of further delays lasting several weeks.
Don’t assume contractors are saints:
Contractors (like machine shops) exist, primarily, to make money. They make more money on rush jobs, so your delays and scheduling errors work to their advantage. They make more money on change orders, so it’s in their interest for you to make last-minute design changes. They make money whether or not you correctly specify exactly what you need, so they don’t care if you specify something that won’t actually work for you.
Example: One startup I worked with sent a machine shop a drawing for a part, but verbally requested a small change that would significantly speed up assembly later on. Although this change wasn’t documented in the drawing, the shop assured the engineers that it would be made. Of course, it wasn’t, causing precious days of delays.
Solution: Have your act together. Triple-check your drawings. Make sure part X is going to work with part Y. Set your tolerances so that you can call your contractors out if they make a mistake–it happens more than you might think.
Use materials & processes like a ninja–light on your feet, but deadly effective
To maximize the benefits of prototyping within tight restrictions on time and money, you’ll have to squeeze every drop of value out of every ounce of material you buy and every dollar you spend on labor.
Example: One startup I worked with was unaware that stainless steel could be welded to non-stainless (“mild”) steel, so they built one part entirely out of stainless, rather than selectively using the two metals as needed. Stainless steel costs between 2 and 6 times as much as mild steel–and it’s also more expensive to drill holes in.
Lastly: Get help if you need it. And you probably do.
I’ve long been impressed by the caliber of people in the clean energy startup scene, especially here in Boston; these folks are well-educated, passionate, and intelligent.
But intelligence and education are poor substitutes for technology and experience. Prototyping is cheaper, faster, and more effective when at least one person on the team has experience with the constraints, materials, and processes involved.
Moreover, prototyping is fundamentally a project management exercise, but some startups ignore this fact and put engineers in charge who have no project management experience or training. This is a great way to teach those engineers project management, but not necessarily a great way to run a project.
If your team doesn’t have expertise in prototyping, then do us all a favor and seek it out, because we really need good ideas to succeed, especially in clean energy.
This is the start of a series focusing on making Boston a world class city for clean energy prototyping. Read more about the Boston Institute for Clean Energy Prototyping.