Can Oakland Startup Veranda Become the Apple of Solar?

Updated: Apple has developed a reputation for sleek, hip and user-friendly computers and electronics. Now, Veranda Solar, a startup based in Portland, Ore. and Oakland, Calif., developing small, easy-to-install solar-power systems, says it wants to become the Apple of consumer solar products. (Updated to reflect that the company works out of both cities.)


How so? Instead of focusing on a new solar chemistry or production technology, the company hopes to differentiate itself with its aesthetics, appeal and ease of use, CEO Capra J’neva says. “We interact with real people to create our products, so we are reducing market risk by understanding the real needs of people who will buy [them],” she told us last week.

The Veranda Solar system “will appeal to the type of people who like Apple products,” J’neva said, though the company is also focused on the subset of those Apple aficionados who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle and do something positive for the environment. But unlike Apple, Veranda plans to offer affordable prices.

Founded in December, the startup is designing solar-power systems, made up of small (about 24-inch and 60- to 70-watt) panels with rounded corners, that consumers can install themselves. Veranda’s systems, based on prototypes that were developed at Stanford University with SunPower Corp., will fold flat — making them easy to ship — and snap together. The systems will include the panels, inverter and everything else needed to deliver power into a home, and will be certified to plug right into a standard wall outlet, J’neva said. The idea is that customers will be able to install them with only a screwdriver, mounting them on roofs, windowsills, balconies or walls.

From the photos, the prototype panel designs look a bit like a four-leaf clover and a lily pad. “We were wanting to create a solar panel that was not intimidating to people, and our target market likes the rounded corners,” J’neva said. “It’s huggable.” But don’t expect the final design to look just like the prototypes. The company is now optimizing the panels for manufacturing, and that’s likely to encourage less roundness, meaning they’ll probably more closely resemble the smaller of the two prototypes, she said. “Obviously, we don’t want to waste that much glass, either,” she added.

The company, which presented at the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco last week, is seeking $1.5 million to bring its systems to the market, starting with the West Coast. Veranda already raised seed funding in the Dutch Postcode Lottery‘s Picnic Green Challenge business-plan competition, when it won a second prize of €100,000 (about $123,000) last year.

The company plans to use its current round of funding to finish its third prototype, get Underwriters Laboratories certification and begin production. In spite of its panels’ different shape, Veranda says they can be made using existing equipment and processes. “We are not taking a 2-inch sample of solar-cell material and trying to scale it to production, requiring huge investments in capital equipment and research,” J’neva said. “Because we’re not a risky lab project, we expect we can bring [our product] to market later this year and make a profit within three years.”

Still, a new shape does bring a certain element of risk, said Travis Bradford, president of solar-research firm Prometheus Institute. “Any time you change your form factor, you have to change your approach to distribution and integration and maintenance,” he said. “That is a seriously nontrivial set of activities.” But the idea of making solar more attractive is an important one, he added. “A lot of people share an intuition that that is necessary and will occur, and nothing jumps to mind as a shining example of success yet.” he said. “Somebody’s going to sell sexy solar. The current crop isn’t that pretty.”

Veranda expects its systems, which include a panel, an inverter and cables, will start at $600 — or about $400 for just the panels, J’neva said. Veranda expects to sell systems at home-decor and home-improvement stores such as Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and Home Depot, as well as through utilities, direct sales and solar-specialty businesses. The company forecasts it will net $140,355 in sales from 300 customers this year and turn a profit in 2011.