Building Affordable Solar Electricity Solutions For Everyone In Bangladesh and Beyond With Sebastian Groh, Founder, and MD and Daniel Ciganovic, Co-Founder, and CFO, SOLshare

Building Affordable Solar Electricity Solutions For Everyone In Bangladesh and Beyond With Sebastian Groh, Founder, and MD and Daniel Ciganovic, Co-Founder, and CFO, SOLshare

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Sebastian Groh is the Founder, and Managing Director of SOLshare and Daniel Ciganovic is the Co-Founder and CFO of SOLshare, a Dhaka-based startup that has been working to bring “affordable solar electricity to everyone in Bangladesh and beyond” by bringing sharing economy ethos to solar energy sharing through its peer-to-peer solar energy trading platform.

We recently caught up with Mr. Sebastian and Mr. Daniel, to learn about their journey to entrepreneurship, how SOLshare came into being, what is SOLshare and how it operates, the state of SOLshare’s business today, its ambition going forward, the state of solar energy sector in Bangladesh, their lessons in entrepreneurship and much more.

SOLshare is a fascinating company and is tackling one of the biggest challenges the earth is facing today. Founded in 2015, SOLshare enables communities to produce, consume, and trade solar energy using a local microgrid. It pioneers a micro-energy transition model by interconnecting solar home systems in peer-to-peer networks and allowing communities to monetize excess solar energy along the value chain in real time with mobile money. The company says it has created “a revolutionary new approach to bring affordable solar electricity to everyone in Bangladesh and beyond through its peer-to-peer solar energy trading platforms based on distributed ledger technology.” To date, SoLshare has raised about $1.7Mn in funding.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your background and what you are working on now.

Sebastian Groh

By education, I am a development economist, in practice, I am an entrepreneur and teacher. I believe in the 5 D’s (Decentralization, Decriminalization, Disruption, Democratization & Digitization) which fuel our energy future, some realize that sooner, some later. What we are working on is to try to put Bangladesh ahead of the curve here and show that to the world.

Daniel Ciganovic

I have studied Monetary Economics and Social Psychology in Germany and completed my studies in 2012. During my university studies I have worked with several IT start-ups and mainly worked on structuring their financials. After my studies, I worked as a consultant in the development sector, mainly on private sector development and energy-related projects.

I joined Sebastian at SOLshare here in Bangladesh back in January 2015 and have since then been working on the development of a business model for our P2P energy trading platform and also focused on the organizational development of our company.

Future Startup

When and how did you get started with SOLshare? What was the motivation behind starting SOLshare?

Sebastian Groh

Actually, SOLshare came about through a challenge! In 2013, I pitched the idea of SOLshare has one of the early outcomes of my Ph.D. thesis investigating the role of energy in development processes to a mock jury at Stanford within the GSB’s Ignite program. The jury challenged my lack of real field experience on the grounds that I had never actually been to Bangladesh. This was when I decided ok, then, I’ll go for it 100% and made the move to turn the theoretical concept of swarm electrification into reality in Bangladesh.

And fast forward, in 2018 we joined, as the first Bangladeshi company ever, the ranks of the likes of Google, Dropbox, and Spotify as World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers.

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Future Startup

What went into building the initial operation of SOLshare? How did you manage the initial investment and other logistics and get started?

Sebastian Groh

We were operating out of my flat in DOHS Baridhara, bootstrapping from our PhD scholarships. I remember it as it was yesterday. Before getting our first Taka, I said to Hannes (our CTO), let’s build a white box that looks like an apple and blinks and make sure people get the idea that you can trade solar electricity with it. What is in the box doesn’t matter, but people (as in funders) need to be able to touch something, the idea of a platform model won’t work from the start.

Future Startup

Could you please give us an overview of SOLshare in terms of services you offer, how does your product/service work, number of users, team size, operations, the size of your business/revenue, etc?

Daniel Ciganovic

Bangladesh currently has one of the biggest markets for decentralized energy supply systems due to the government supported IDCOL Solar Homes System Programme (SHS), which made Bangladesh a worldwide lighthouse example on how to bring energy access to millions of people in remote areas.

What we are offering is an energy trading platform that allows these SHS users to trade electricity with each other in a P2P energy grid. The services that we provide start with a settling payment between our users through mobile money payments, up to remote grid monitoring services that allow grid operators to understand and manage energy supply and demand. We currently operate 25 of these grids in Bangladesh and have around 2,500 end-users who benefit from our services. Our goal is to increase the number to 80 grids by the end of this year with almost 2,500 households and small businesses connected to our platform.

We currently have a team of 50+ people here in Bangladesh. Out of this, 20+ people are developing our software and hardware solutions 100% locally, while we managed to get support from international experts and started collaborations with international partners like MIT, Harvard University, and companies like Telefonica, one of the biggest Telecommunication companies in the world. We also managed to get Innogy and EDP, two large scale utilities, on board during our last investment round, which helps us to strengthen our R&D capacities here in Bangladesh.

Our revenues are supposed to cross 2 Crore BDT within this year, but due to the heavy focus on research and development, this will not allow us to break even yet.

Bangladesh’s many SHS by Hannes_Kirchhoff

Future Startup

How have you attracted users and grown SOLshare? Could tell us a bit about your process and activities you did to attract users?

Sebastian Groh

In the beginning, I thought I had figured it out. I said to the team, ok, let’s go out there and tell our potential users that from now on their solar home systems can earn money. Who doesn’t want extra money, especially if it’s coming from the sun? Unfortunately, it was completely the wrong value proposition.

The crux is that from the outset people with solar home systems feel/are constrained, so instead of the crazy idea of selling power, they want more power, unlimited power 24/7. Now in the sharing economy model, you have to take a stand, are you maximizing for the riders or the ride-hailers? We came up with a buying guarantee for a villager to buy solar power as they go.

Future Startup

What’s your business model? How have you grown your revenue?

Sebastian Groh

Imagine SOLshare being the AirBnB of the off-grid world. Due to technical design constraints, the 5M SHSs out there are in fact an underutilized asset that we make available to the people suffering from energy poverty. Our sharing economy approach allows SHS owners and non-owners (those who couldn’t afford a system to date) to share electricity. For the individual user, this means exponentially more degrees of freedom.

We equip our users with an electricity buying guarantee, a feeling similar to that people have in the developed world where electricity is simply always available. Our customers have all their life been constrained by either not having access to electricity at all, a situation shared by 1 billion people around the globe, or to be constrained by their SHS capacity. A key advantage of the system also is that now people can have more money, as they are able to sell their excess electricity or decide to invest in additional PV to become a smart solar entrepreneur.

SOLshare here acts as a platform provider charging a transaction fee for every Wh traded in our SOLgrids. What makes the system seamless is that the entire settlement is done via a mobile money platform that is integrated into ours.

Daniel Ciganovic

To understand our role and our business model, it is important to understand how energy markets have been working in the past. While many sectors have already undergone drastic changes due to new technical possibilities, energy markets have been left out for quite a while. This is mainly due to the fact that energy markets are one of the most regulated markets in the world and investments are very capital extensive. As a result, energy markets have remained centralized while other markets have already undergone a process of decentralization. We just need to look at the transport sector or hospitality industry, where companies like Pathao or AirBnB have turned whole sectors up-side-down.

The decentralization of the energy market in Bangladesh has already started in early 2000 with the deployment of SHSs. However, so far there have been huge challenges in overcoming the integration of the existing centralized energy infrastructures and decentralized energy supply systems.

Currently, our business model is built around supplying reliable energy supply and enabling smooth payments between energy buyers and sellers. But based on the fact that we currently operate one of the biggest P2P energy trading platforms globally, this will soon allow us to think far beyond energy access.

Future Startup

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Sebastian Groh

Mastering how to move electrons between houses in the most efficient way where all stakeholders involved benefit is an incredibly complex task. This is true in terms of technology, socio-economics, and policy! But once we have figured it out, we will not only have left our dent in the fight against energy poverty in South Asia but also shown to the rest of the world what the energy utility of the future looks like. This is what I find truly amazing, the Global South will lead the way!

In terms of prevailing challenges, technology adoption in the end-user segment is difficult. Citizens in rural areas of Bangladesh and similar countries are usually not familiar with smart-grid technology, this combined with connectivity good, takes a lot of stamina of going out there, again and again, even though many (all) people might tell you, this will not work here, no chance!

The lack of solid business rules in the country and excessive bureaucracy add a significant transaction and coordination cost for almost everything.

Future Startup

How does your sales and marketing work?

Sebastian Groh

We started out B2C in order to figure out all the processes and then converted to a B2B model. We strongly believe in competitive advantage and not in verticals, at least in the solar off-grid sector from a global perspective.

Future Startup

You have raised a sizeable investment last year, could you tell us about your experience raising investment? What startup founders who are trying to raise investment should know about raising investment?

Daniel Ciganovic

To be very honest, I still have not fully understood the fundraising process and what is the most important part. I have been working on our financials intensely in order to provide all the documentation to our investors which are needed. However, this is important, but not the most important. This is due to the fact, that I believe financial projections are mainly an internal tool, you need to dive into a model so deeply to really understand what is really going on.

I think the best way to understand the fundraising process is to put yourself into the position of an investor. If you would invest in your own money, which would be the questions you would ask, what are the things you feel sure about and what are the things where you cannot overcome uncertainties. The nature of a startup is, that it’s a company without a long track record, so you can’t rely on historical financial data. I think one of the most important things is to accept this, an investor has to deal with uncertainties and nobody wants to lose money.

Having a clear vision, which might even be crazy, but being honest and humble and keeping all the risks in mind that everybody who gets involved has to face, helps a lot.

Future Startup

What are your goals for the future?

Sebastian Groh

We want to be better than the national grid. There is still this idea out there that the big grid will solve everything but it doesn’t, rather it goes off when it is most critical in some of our villages, and it’s so expensive to set-up. Instead of building more of this legacy structure, let’s get readu=y for the future.

We want to show the world that the future of energy has started in Bangladesh. 25 million people using solar as their primary energy source and trading among each other, feeding to the grid and stabilizing the grid. Electric rickshaws pitstop charging in our grids bringing in fresh money and now being able to service event the remotest areas.

Future Startup

Could you tell us about the state of the renewable energy sector in Bangladesh? We have had some success with solar over the past few years, could you tell us about the market, opportunities, and challenges?

Sebastian Groh

Bangladesh has set a world record in disseminating close to five million solar home systems, that’s more than all other countries together. Germany, the country where the Energiewende was born, has about half as many solar-roof-top installations. However, most of the efforts in utility-scale solar t date have failed or at least experienced, usually, scarcity of non-agricultural land is quoted as the reason, as well as excessive red tape. However, my Ph.D. father from UC Berkeley, Dan Kammen, last year published a study that finds that there is 53 GW of low-cost utility-scale PV potential, far more than previously estimated, and exploitable much faster and at a lower cost than coal or gas. Though more expensive, rooftop solar PV could provide 17% of current peak demand (2 GW).

In consequence, to meet Bangladesh’s 2030 renewable energy targets (20% RE) only 0.17% of the total land area is required. Hence, even with a conservative land use program, there is enough RE capacity to support growth. It’s possible!

Future Startup

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous in the process of building SOLshare?

Sebastian Groh

Trying things out, be honest when they fail, and try it in another way! You don’t know unless you try. We made so many mistakes and keep doing. I think nobody has figured it all out, and if you are too realistic and want to control everything you will eventually come to the conclusion that the impossible is indeed impossible and you will end up giving up.

I think when you are fighting windmills, and I think at this stage all entrepreneurs in Bangladesh are doing that, especially the social entrepreneurs are surely in such a position, you have to keep telling yourself that somehow you will figure it out, even though everything at times points in the direction that you are not. It’s in these situations where the founders’ team has to stick together, as well as good mentors can really make a difference. It’s not easy to find a good mentor who does not have skin in the game and still supports you without any hidden agenda.

Future Startup

Beside running SoLshare you also teach, how do you juggle both jobs?

Sebastian Groh

See, for me it’s incredibly interesting interacting with the local students, to learn what moves them, what are their aspirations and how those are changing. When I started teaching in the MBA school about four years back, everyone wanted to become a banker (“good marriage material”), when I tried to carefully challenge them with 4IR trends, I didn’t get far.

Fast forward today at BRAC Business School, the picture is very different. Students are curious about SOLshare, and when I ask them to come up with a business model canvas for a company of their choice, more than half of my students choose own companies, these are great developments! And at the end of the day, a large part of being a CEO is being a good teacher, I think it’s mutually beneficial.

Future Startup

How do you operate and stay productive? How does a typical day of you look like?

Sebastian Groh

It’s chaotic, I am trying to get a better rhythm, by waking up rather early and go running with my wife every day, but then after some time, this stops again. Once I figured it out, I‘ll let you know.

Future Startup

Any tips for founders trying to build consequential companies?

Daniel Ciganovic

Running a successful business always starts with a problem statement. Many founders get lost because they have an idea first and then search for problems they are actually solving, which sometimes leads them to come up with problem statements that fit to their idea, while they forget to question if the problem is actually a real problem that needs to be solved immediately. The next step is to think about what can happen once you have solved this problem and what are the opportunities you create for your business out of it.

The reason why the energy access problem fascinates me much is, that energy is just an enabler, especially electricity. Electricity is one of the purest forms of energy and it becomes more and more important. We already see this today, as information systems run on electricity. If there is no electricity, you can’t charge your mobile phone or run a computer, which is the foundation for modern information exchange systems.

Right now we’re seeing how the transport sector is being transformed through electric vehicles, the next step will be cooking solutions, which are still heavily relying on burning fossil fuels or biomass. These transformations will add new challenges and the sooner you think about them, the better, as this will define the problems you need to solve and the business model you need to provide in the future.

Another very important tip as a CFO, get your accounting and financial compliance right from day one. I know, this is annoying to most founders, as this is part of the boring work we usually don’t want to think about. However, never underestimate the power of your financial numbers, they speak more truth than anything else and the sooner you start dealing with them in detail, the better.

Future Startup: Where can our readers go to learn more about SOLshare?

You can find us under www.me-solshare.com or under the usual social media channels. Also, we are extremely excited that soon the climate change documentary 2040 (7.8 on IMDB, among the most successful documentaries ever made in Australia) will launch internationally in cinemas, and SOLshare’s activities in Bangladesh are a central part of it.

Together With Flight Expert

A Message From Flight Expert!

Flight Expert, being the most prominent Online Travel Agency (OTA) in Bangladesh, is making life easier for every traveler around the globe. From booking domestic and international flights to reserving hotel rooms for your trip, Flight Expert has it all in one place, within the reach of your fingertips.

We Provide:

  • Flight Booking
  • Hotel Reservation

Enjoy:

  • Instant booking
  • Book Now Pay Later
  • Pay with EMI

Support:

  • Get 365 Days dedicated Customer Support

Contact us:

Flight Expert – all about your journey!
Please visit us here!

Cover photo: Sebastian and Daniel, Founders of SOLShare (from left to right). Photo Credit: SOLShare

Update on July 11 at 8:19 PM: We misspelled the name of Daniel Ciganovic, Co-founder and CFO of SOLShare, it has been updated.

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