Two alumni from The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) College of Engineering have combined their entrepreneurial spirit and technical prowess to simplify solar power and bring it to a wider market.
William Tolhurst graduated from UTSA in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and the Harvard Business School (HBS) in 2008. In 2009, he became acquainted with Cory Hallam, director of the UTSA Center for Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship (CITE), through the HBS alumni club of San Antonio.
“The club was looking for some kind of local community outreach, to help young entrepreneurs,” Tolhurst said. “It was very fortunate that I met Cory and learned about CITE.”
Tolhurst was fascinated by CITE’s unique entrepreneurship competition, which challenges UTSA business and engineering students to build and market a product for a $100,000 prize pool of start-up funding and resources.
“Not only did Bill help establish a Venture Mentor Network for UTSA CITE mirroring MIT’s network, but he exemplifies the ecosystem approach we have built in the community the results in long-term acceleration of company creation,” Hallam said.
As one of the first local business mentors to CITE competitors, Tolhurst became acquainted with Cole Brady, then a UTSA junior.
“Cole immediately impressed me,” Tolhurst said. “He led his team with a plan to create and sell an electric motorcycle, and had already raised money to help fund building their prototype. I knew that was the project I wanted to mentor.”
Brady graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2010. Three years later, he contacted Tolhurst to ask if he wanted to go into business together in the renewable energy industry. By the following year, the pair had founded CoWatt Energy, a company that recently introduced an innovative new ground-mounted solar panel.
“Solar power is a rapidly growing industry, and one of the most attractive things about it is that it’s rapidly becoming less expensive than traditional power,” Tolhurst said.
However, despite the economic advantage, there are currently significant challenges associated with deploying solar power. Buildings and houses utilizing solar panels need to have roofs that can support the immense weight of solar technology. The panels also need to be frequently cleaned and maintained, and it takes a great effort to assemble and configure them.
Tolhurst and Brady have gotten around these challenges by attaching each panel to a sturdy plastic structure they call a “solar LEGO® brick,” the PowerFunnelTM.
The device includes a solar panel, electronics, and cabling all assembled onto a sturdy plastic structure. It’s also designed to capture air flow that can cool the panel and electronics, maximizing output and protecting the circuitry from overheating while sitting in the sun.
“Once it’s installed, we fill the floor of the PowerFunnelTM with concrete, and then it can withstand winds up to 120 miles per hour,” Tolhurst said.
He noted most roof-mounted solar panels sit at a flatter angle to avoid wind damage. Since the device’s simpler structure allows for a steeper angle, they’re easily cleaned by rain fall, requiring little maintenance.
“This product just wouldn’t exist if I didn’t have my UTSA degree,” Brady said. “CITE helped me understand what it takes to put together a business plan, develop a technology and bring it to market.”
Tolhurst and Brady are currently marketing the PowerFunnelTM as supplementary power to the rural market, having discovered it accounts for 30 percent of power sold in the United States yet is underserved by the solar industry. Ultimately, they believe their products can promote sustainability on a global basis.
“I could imagine 50 of these rolling out of a cargo plane one afternoon in sub-Saharan Africa, and suddenly by that evening an entire village has power,” Tolhurst said.