Measuring Impact has become a major challenge for impact investors.  The main reason is that for all their good intents, organizations that develop impact metrics ultimately end up trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  Impact metrics systems struggle to compare apples and oranges in order to demonstrate that the social and environmental benefit can be measured in the same way that financial benefits can be.  As our Impact Landscape canvas shows, “impact investing” is not a vertical market. It is futile to try to compare the metrics for bringing education vs. clean water to a community. Both are important and someone will focus on each.  Ultimately, the metrics for both must be different. 

A lot of great work has gone into developing metrics for impact.  There are templates, sample measurements within various verticals, and thoughtful approaches to measuring impact without drawing too much energy away from the impact organizations whose outcomes are being measured.  

Our metrics thesis is not superior to nor a replacement of other metrics. We appreciate the values and intents behind GIIRS, B Corp Certification, IRIS, Guide Star, SOPACT (Actionable Impact Management), GRI and the SDGs, as well as gender lens metrics, diligence metrics, reporting metrics, performance metrics and others.  These are all great frameworks for a Rockies Impact Fund portfolio company to use in determining the best key metrics for themselves to use, along with their investors and stakeholders, to guide their actions.

Regardless of the metrics system used, one important principle is to think of metrics as something that happens on the front-end of a transaction, not just one of measuring whether the outcomes were successful or not.  Students of business process will remember the revolution that occurred in American manufacturing when W. Edwards Deming studied manufacturing process and found that in the 1950’s people were engaging in “quality control” by culling out the defects at the end of the manufacturing process.  He envisioned building quality in from the beginning of the process and greatly improved efficiency of American manufacturing.

What if we applied those same principles to impact investing metrics?  Instead of making investments and waiting to see if they produced the outcomes we had hoped for, we build impact metrics in from the beginning?

We view metrics in two ways.

Inbound Metrics – Is it an “Impact Investment” According to our Thesis?

Impact companies do not always present themselves with an “impact” label and it is important for us to be able to determine which companies from the flow of deals will qualify as “impact” investments. As such, we expect many companies approaching the Rockies Impact Fund and qualifying for investment will not need to present themselves as “impact companies”.  They may be focused on health, education, environment or other impact causes, but they present themselves primarily as a business enterprise. Because of this and because the Rockies Impact Fund will invest across multiple markets ranging from healthcare to education to agriculture, the Fund’s managers do not arbitrarily choose any one system to measure whether something is an impact investment or not.  Most existing impact metrics systems have a hard time telling us whether it is better to invest in a company that can provide education to one hundred students or to provide clean water to those same people. Instead the Fund’s Management uses a simple version of metrics based on Utilitarian Ethics founded by 17th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham[1] in which the moral choice was one that benefited “the greatest number of people with the greatest good.”  Rockies Impact Fund managers have added a venture capital twist to make it a three-fold metric that includes “…at the greatest financial return.”

The Rockies Impact Fund intends to measure each incoming opportunity against these three criteria of number, impact and return, each scored on a one to ten scale.  A company needs to have a score of 19 or greater, without a large standard deviation among the three scores to qualify for investment. For example, in the “financial return” category, potential for a 10X return in five years falls at “7” on the one to ten scale.

IMPACT
ASSESSMENT
SCALE
# of peopleDepth of ImpactFinancial
Return
(Multiple)
1UnknownNegativeNone
2TensNone0-1
3HundredsVery Low2-3
4ThousandsLow4-5
5Tens of thousandsLow Medium6-7
6Hundreds of thousandsMedium8-9
7MillionsHigh Medium10
8Tens of MillionsHigh20
9Hundreds of MillionsVery High30
10BillionsCritical50+

Rockies Impact Fund’s managers have evaluated their past investment portfolios and have found that approximately fifty percent of the portfolio companies under management in the Rockies Venture Fund I (32 investments) and Rockies Venture Management (40 investments) would qualify under these measures as being Impact Investments. The Rockies Impact Fund will invest in impact opportunities using these metrics where companies qualifying score at 19 points or greater.  Our goal is to create consistency in determining the amount of impact so that investors and Limited Partners can calibrate with a scale that is understood to all.

By “beginning with the end in mind” we believe that we can maximize social and environmental impact in the investments we make.  With a clear path to outcomes and pre-established metrics, we can create an “Impact Proforma” that we use just like the financial proformas that model future revenues and expenses for a Venture Capital Portfolio company.  By using the impact proforma we can help companies to adjust their strategies to maximize impact while also pursuing 10X investment returns.

Post-Investment Metrics – Is the Company’s Execution Creating Good in the World?

We develop post-investment metrics for each portfolio company based on their Primary Impact.  We use guidelines from existing metrics systems such as GIIN’s IRIS+ Thematic Taxonomy (Global Impact Investing Network) which provides suggested metrics for many, but not all impact types. 

We’ve struggled, as many have, to develop or select an existing single set of metrics for impact companies which we believe is impossible. One simply can’t use the same metrics for edtech and agtech and metrics that CAN be applied to both, would be Secondary metrics about how the company operated, thus ignoring the most import Primary impact output that the company creates. At the end of the day, we’ve determined that each company needs to set its own metrics for impact as a part of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that they measure on a regular basis as a part of managing their business. That being said, using a consistent set of metrics, when available, such as IRIS+ can be useful, ultimately, each company has its own outcomes that it tracks and by focusing on Primary Impact, investors will settle on investment metrics that are based on the individual company’s outcomes.

So, for example, a company that uses telemedicine to reduce the cost of healthcare by keeping people out of emergency rooms and to increase access to health care by underserved and rural populations might set about measuring:

●        Number of people diverted from the emergency room (and the cost savings because of that)

●        Number of people in rural communities served.

●        Number of other underserved communities who gain access to healthcare.

Because the Rockies Impact Fund focuses on Primary Impact, these mission specific metrics make sense.  Each company is creating good by what it does when it carries out its mission. Additionally, these company-specific metrics are also their commercial raison d’etre, and thus, should be measured as part of their commercial KPIs even if they are not demanded for by the Fund.

The Sustainable Development Goals categories, for example, provide a good framework for understanding the scope of most impact investments. The metrics that fall under these categories will be well understood among investors who are analyzing various investment opportunities.  The Rockies Impact Fund’s management finds these categories to be useful and comprehensive and therefore we strive to work within this framework, while measuring each investment individually.

At the end of the day, impact investors want both a significant social and/or environmental impact, plus market rate returns.  Impact investors who develop inbound metrics find that they are investing in companies that create significant outcomes which can be modelled using an impact proforma.  Others who invest based on passion and cause alone may find that the impact they create is not as great as they had hoped.

All impact investing can be divided into primary or secondary impact and impact investors should understand the difference.  We define “primary impact” as impact that is caused by the company carrying out its mission.  Whenever a primary impact company sells its goods or services, there is social and/or environmental good that comes from it. Secondary impact companies, on the other hand, are measured by their practices rather than their business product.

We make the distinction between primary and secondary impact by noting that primary impact is created by “what” the does as opposed to “how” they do it. For-profit companies that have positive environmental impact by creating carbon-free energy, for example, create impact by the very act of carrying out their business and reducing carbon emissions. The more that the company grows and carries out its mission, the more positive impact there is in the world. 

Many impact investors focus on secondary impact, or “how” the company carries out its mission, than the mission itself. Certified B Corporations (B Corps) are a good example of this.  The qualifications to be a B Corp focus primarily on metrics surrounding business operations such as diversity, pay disparity, green business practices, etc.  These are laudable goals and are accompanied by rigid sets of metrics to assure compliance. 

Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) became popular in the 1970s and was known more for what investors did NOT want to invest in. An example of this is the elimination of investment dollars by SRI funds into the tobacco, alcohol and other industries perceived as negative by SRI practitioners.  ESG, or Environmental and Social Governance strategies, are more sophisticated and believe that companies that intentionally measure and act with environmental and social outcomes will do well in the long run.  Many practitioners however have found ways to meet the standardized ESG metrics while not passing the “sniff test” of more discerning impact investors.  Examples include British Petroleum, Slumberger, Clorox, Coca Cola, Conoco Phillips, Nestle and XCEL Energy. Clearly, there’s something that could be improved with ESG metrics and the companies that can manipulate the data to fit them while potentially harming society and the environment.  This practice of using metrics and certifications to make carbon generating companies like British Petroleum and Conoco Phillips is called “greenwashing” and impact investors should keep their eyes out for true impact vs. greenwashed impact.  By distinguishing between primary and secondary impact, we eliminate much of the opportunity for greenwashing.

Measurement of primary impact,  tells us what the company does and how it impacts communities, economies and the environment.  Take, for example, PharmaJet.  This is a company that makes a needle free injection system for vaccines.  The PharmaJet injector is small, requires no batteries or electricity to run, can be operated with minimal training and can be used thousands of times before replacement is needed.  The PharmaJet capsules that hold the vaccine have no needles, so every time one is used, there is a diminished likelihood of needle pricks suffered by health care practitioners.  They also cannot be reused by drug abusers or reused by healthcare practitioners in undeveloped countries.  Other benefits include PharmaJet’s more efficient delivery which cuts the amount of Polio vaccine needed by up to 30% for each injection.  Given the world-wide shortage of Polio vaccine, the impact of being able to inoculate 30% more people with a given amount of vaccine is significant.  The time to administer a shot with PharmaJet’s system is almost half of that of using needles, so healthcare workers can provide twice as many vaccinations in a community in a given period of time.  Additionally, many people are needle-phobic and they fail to get regular vaccinations for influenza and other diseases, leading to global health vulnerabilities when significant populations are unvaccinated.  The pain free, needle free PharmaJet system eliminates the excuses for these people to avoid vaccinations and can have massive impacts in global health outcomes. 

These are all Primary impacts that come from using PharmaJet’s system.  The company is not B Corporation, SRI or ESG certified, but it does more good with each unit sold than BP does in a year.  If we are going to understand what we mean by impact, we will need to distinguish between Primary and Secondary Impact, because they are clearly very different metrics and will have very different impact outcomes.

To be clear, ESG, SRI and B Corporations have done good things to raise the bar for business practices in many companies but impact investors should understand the risks or relying too heavily on these metrics.  But a company can do both primary and secondary impact – Just because a company creates primary impact through carrying out its mission does not mean that it cannot also carry out secondary impact by following best practices for sustainable practices within its organization.

 By focusing on primary impact, impact investors could avoid the challenges of ESG metrics systems and the potential for greenwashing that they enable.  Investing in companies whose primary mission entails doing social and environmental good avoids the greenwashing and self-justification that dated metrics systems could allow. 

Rockies Impact Fund - Venture Capital Fund focusing on full market-rate returns on early stage Primary impact companies.

If you’re interested in learning more about impact investing in your portfolio, are an accredited investor, fund, foundation, family office or CSR investor, please contact us about becoming a Limited Partner in the Rockies Impact Fund.  The Rockies Impact Fund is a full market-rate return targeted Primary Impact Venture Capital fund that targets early stage private impact companies in the UN SDGs focusing on healthcare, education, agtech, economic development and sustainable cities.

Peter Adams is co-author of Venture Capital for Dummies and serves as the Executive Director of the Rockies Venture Club, the longest running angel investing group in the U.S. 

Peter serves as an Officer on the Board of the Angel Capital Association, the North American association of professional angel investing groups.

He also runs the Rockies Venture Fund, an early stage venture capital fund and Rockies Impact Fund, investing in social and environmentally oriented companies. 

Peter is also the founder of The Rockies Venture Institute, the Women’s Investor Network, and BizGirls.org, a non-profit CEO Development Program for young women.

In the western region of our country where the Coalition for a Connected West (CCW) works, the tech sector is playing an increasingly vital role in state economies.  Access to high-speed Internet has inspired individuals from all walks of life to create opportunity for families and businesses. Read more

 

Impact Investing Metrics

Rockies Venture Club Impact Investing

Impact Investing is a term that has a wide range of interpretations. In order to have credibility, consistency and clear understanding about what constitutes success in impact investing it’s important to have a clear set of metrics to understand the social, environmental and economic impacts of impact investments.

Impact is Big Business

The impact investing industry is growing fast with over a trillion dollars of investment over the next decade according to JP Morgan research reported in Business Ethics magazine.   Funds that are investing for others find more and more reasons that they need to have clear metrics to demonstrate that they are carrying out the mission of the investors.   While each fund may develop their own metrics individually, there are huge benefits to utilizing an agreed upon set of metrics across the industry to allow for apples-to-apples comparisons among funds.

Using standardized metrics provides a framework in which larger and larger amounts of investment can be made by sophisticated funds.  The result of this is that impact investing funds can eclipse philanthropic efforts in improving health, education, environment and quality of life for underserved markets.  There will always be a place for philanthropy, but research has shown many for-profit organizations have been able to bring greater impact with greater long term sustainability than those non-profits that provide one-time support.

While individual impact investors don’t have concerns about accountability or credibility, they should also be using metrics to help them understand and evaluate the deals that they are considering and to be able to hone their investing strategies to balance financial and social/environmental outcomes.  Individuals will want to understand their investing goals, but will also want to be able to select impact investments that match and support their own values.

Global Impact Investing Ratings

In 2011 B Labs worked with over 200 impact investing funds to create GIIRS (pronounced “gears”), the Global Impact Investing Ratings System and its IRIS Registry for impact funds.  Since then, GIIRS has become the defacto standard for measuring social and environmental impact on investments that are clear and verifiable by third parties.  Impact companies that want to know how they’re doing can take a free impact assessment provided by B Labs that will let them know how they are doing and to test their future strategies against industry benchmarks.  The ability to compare each company’s results based on standardized measures opens up huge new opportunities for B Corporations and for funds alike.  Just as having standardized GAAP accounting guidelines makes investment analysis for public companies efficient, having the GIIRS standard opens the door for large scale investment in impact companies.

Rockies Venture Club Impact Investing

To learn more about B corporations and hear pitches from active impact companies, , consider attending the RVC Impact Investing event Tuesday, December 10th 5:00-7:30PM at the Colorado State University Denver Center Event Atrium 475 17th Street, Suite 200 Denver, CO. Click Here to Register

http://rockiesventureclub.wildapricot.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1349467&eventId=698729&EventViewMode=EventDetails

Impact Investing is not new and has been around since the 1960’s, if not before.  Since that time we’ve seen a lot of success stories coming from impact investments.  With these successes we’re also seeing significant amounts of dollars under management by impact investing funds with returns of 25% and up PLUS social and environmental impact.

Given the lack of early stage startup funding for impact companies, uncertainties with cleantech technologies, lack of governance in developing countries, lack of structured capital markets and exit opportunities in third world countries and the need to provide social and/or environmental impact, it’s a wonder that impact companies can return anything at all to investors.

In our research we’ve found many funds and foundations that have achieved financial success in making impact investments, but it’s sometimes difficult to find specific impact investments that have hit it big.  What is the next “Instagram” of Impact Investing?

Here is a story of a company that hit it big.  The good news is that they are not alone and that impact companies are doing well all the time.

dlight S300-Product-Thumbnaild.light (http://www.dlightdesign.com)  has created a product line of solar powered lanterns that bring light and power to third world communities where community electricity is not available.  D.light makes high quality, affordable solar lanterns that are distributed world-wide with over half a million units delivered each month, delivering light to over 20 million individuals and families.  The users pay less for solar lighting than traditional kerosene lanterns, plus  the lighting allows for greater productivity and income generation when people can work beyond daylight hours.  Students benefit from better study environments and homes are safer and healthier without kerosene fumes.  Finally, the reduction in carbon emissions is significant.  The statistics below show the social and environmental impacts of this company that is turning a good profit at the same time.

25,315,130 lives empowered

6,328,782 school-aged children reached with solar lighting

$767,644,065 saved in energy-related expenses

7,219,013,138 productive hours created for working and studying

1,794,878 tons of CO2 offset

30,807,967 kWh generated from renewable energy source

 

d.light has won numerous certifications and awards and is backed by an impressive collection of venture funds and foundations – all expecting to turn a profit on their investments.  D.light is a “B Corporation” which means that it is a for profit corporation, but that it must meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.

 

At Rockies Venture Club we hope to find companies like this each December at our Impact Investing Event and support local companies that are doing good all over the world.

To learn more about impact investing and to meet the founders of four great impact companies, consider attending the RVC Impact Investing event Tuesday, December 10th 5:00-7:30PM at the Colorado State University Denver Center Event Atrium 475 17th Street, Suite 200 Denver, CO. Click Here to Register

http://rockiesventureclub.wildapricot.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1349467&eventId=698729&EventViewMode=EventDetails

 

 

Impact-Investing1December is the month in which 25% of American philanthropic dollars are donated.

December is also a month in which investors are making investments, balancing

portfolios and taking profits and losses for tax purposes.

This is a time for investors to be asking themselves whether they can accomplish their

philanthropic and investing goals at the same time.

 

Impact investing has become increasingly popular not only for foundations and family

offices, but also now for individuals.

 

What is “Impact Investing?”

 

The term Impact Investing has been coined to describe investments that have social or

environmental impacts in addition to the economic impacts for the investor’s portfolio.

There has been much debate about what constitutes an Impact Investment though,

since even the most profit minded investment may help communities with job growth

and possible environmental benefits. Sophisticated impact investors typically use

metrics to evaluate the potential social or environmental impacts, and individuals have

access to these as well, though individuals more often rely on a gut feeling to tell them

which investments they prefer.

 

Another debate in Impact Investing circles is how much, if any, reduced profit

expectations should the investor have when making impact investments. Corporate

investors and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programs have developed

sophisticated guidelines for balancing the costs of social and environmental impact with

expected financial costs or returns. They use a “Triple Bottom Line” system to measure

social, environmental and economic impacts of their decisions. Individuals may use

their own guidelines that may apply to all impact investments they make or which may

be applied on a case by case basis. I have seen everything from “I’m just hoping to get

my money back some day” to those who show preference for impact investments, but

who also expect the same types of returns relative to risk that they would see on the

rest of their investment portfolio.

 

At Rockies Venture Club, we hold an impact investing event on the second Tuesday

of every December. We recruit expert speakers on the topic as well as four impact

companies seeking early stage investment. The criteria we use are very close to those

that we use every month when evaluating venture companies for investment. The

companies should have experienced and capable teams, a disruptive technology,

product or service, and a substantial market demand. The outcomes we’re looking for

include an “exit” for investors within about five years with a potential return of up to ten

times the original investment.

 

Rockies Venture Club also supports EFCO (the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado)

Which helps start ups to donate one percent of their founders stock to community

organizations. In this way every company that achieves a successful exit can be an

impact company.

 

To learn more about impact investing and to meet the founders of four great impact

companies, consider attending the RVC Impact Investing event Tuesday, December 10th 5:00-7:30PM at the Colorado State University Denver Center Event Atrium 475 17th Street, Suite 200 Denver, CO. Click Here to Register

http://rockiesventureclub.wildapricot.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1349467&eventId=698729&EventViewMode=EventDetails

 

imact investing returnsOne of the main questions we get regarding impact investing is whether impact investing should be considered to be philanthropy with little or no returns or whether impact investing can be expected to have the same kind of returns that other investment opportunities on the market can offer. We like to think that with a good amount of deal-flow, we can provide a number of impact companies that are also great investments. Research from the Global Impact Investing Netowrk and J.P. Morgan corroborate this, with fully 65% of investors expecting market rate returns.
It’s interesting to note that 36% of those who indicated that their impact investments should return market rates also said that they would consider impact investments at below market rates. I think this is the general opinion of most Rockies Venture Club investors. They’re looking for market rate returns, but for impact companies with a great mission and an ability to demonstrate significant social or environmental impact, they are willing to consider a slightly lower return.
This attitude reflects the “triple bottom line” analysis that corporate CSR departments have implemented in which economic returns may be balanced with social environmental returns when proper metrics are in place to ensure a balanced return to the organization.
An interesting aside to this flexibility in returns for impact companies is an article in the November 25th Wall Street Journal citing a higher degree of happiness among those who regularly donated to philanthropic organizations. We hope that RVC investors who invest in impact companies have a quadruple bottom line return with economic, social, environmental and happiness impacts!

To learn more about Impact Investing and to hear speakers and pitches from Colorado Impact Companies, consider attending the RVC Impact Investing event Tuesday, December 10th 5:00-7:30PM at the Colorado State University Denver Center Event Atrium 475 17th Street, Suite 200 Denver, CO. Click Here to Register

http://rockiesventureclub.wildapricot.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1349467&eventId=698729&EventViewMode=EventDetails

impact investing
When we talk about Impact Investing, we’re talking about investments that make an impact on our communities. There are many ways that this can happen, but the two most common categories are social and environmental impact. My intuitive guess was that environmental impact investing would comprise the greatest portion of investment, but what The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and, J.P. Morgan found in their study “Perspectives on Progress: Impact Investor Survey” January, 2013, was that environmental and social impact investing were almost equal, with slightly more investing going to social impacts.
It’s interesting to note that these two areas have typically NOT been addressed by business interests and therefore must be dealt with by governmental or philanthropic organizations. (In fact Rockies Venture Club gets a lot of applications for “Impact Companies” who “create jobs” or further economic development through their capitalistic activities. While it’s great that these companies do impact their communities, we’re looking for the companies that do something materially different than the normal day-to-day companies out there.
Environmental impact companies are often “clean tech” or “green tech” in their approach. They’re addressing environmental needs in many ways such as wind and solar, energy storage and delivery systems, biofuels, alternative energy sources such as generating energy from waste dumps. These companies are now becoming successful at both returning a profit to investors as well as reducing our carbon footprint, reducing energy costs, and furthering energy independence. That’s a big impact that our big oil and gas companies have not been able to effectively deliver in the past – primarily because there was so much money to be made in traditional energy delivery. Environmental impact companies are making a difference by making alternative energy sources economical, often without government subsidies.
Social impact investments are often more difficult to quantify the returns, yet they account for fully 50% of impact investments according to GIIN, J.P. Morgan. Social impact investments that can provide a return often take the form of jobs programs, education with immediate returns in productivity, water and sanitation systems that create jobs and health benefits for communities, healthcare delivery in remote areas and more. Rockies Venture Club has seen tremendous creativity and energy spent in addressing global community needs by companies that are innovating and finding lower costs of delivery and sustainable income that returns profits to investors while benefitting communities.
To learn more about Impact Investing and to hear speakers and pitches from Colorado Impact Companies, consider attending the RVC Impact Investing event Tuesday, December 10th 5:00-7:30PM at the Colorado State University Denver Center Event Atrium 475 17th Street, Suite 200 Denver, CO. Click Here to Register

http://rockiesventureclub.wildapricot.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1349467&eventId=698729&EventViewMode=EventDetails

by James Lester, Managing Consultant with Cleantech Finance

Rockies Venture Club presenter Sun Number has announced an award housesof approximately $1 million to expand the geographic coverage of its rooftop solar assessment services through the Department of Energy’s SunShot Incubator program. The award also enables Sun Number to expand the scope of its services by providing additional data that solar contractors will use to grow their businesses and lower customer acquisition costs.

“Being chosen as a SunShot 8 Incubator award recipient to commercialize Sun Number data will significantly accelerate our growth as a company.  The SunShot funding will be used to quickly expand into new cities increasing the number of buildings analyzed to approximately 35 million,” said David Herrmann, co-founder of Sun Number.

Herrmann added, “The funding will also be used to integrate additional data into the analysis of properties, including data on the likelihood of a building owner qualifying for a solar lease or loan, and the statistical likelihood that a building owner will be interested in solar based on a behavioral model that will be developed.  The data that Sun Number provides brings an installer closer to being able to complete the design of a PV system from their computer in a fraction of the time it currently takes.”

According to the company, Sun Number Scores will now include the economic suitability of a property for solar. Integrating the suitability of the roof for solar with the local cost of electricity, incentives, tax benefits, and the local cost of installation, the Sun Number Score will tell a homeowner if the economics of solar make sense for their building. The new Sun Number Score will be dynamic and as the variables mentioned above change, so will the score. Homeowners with a low score today will be able to set a threshold for the future and get notified when their Sun Number Score reaches that threshold.

The SunShot Program, initiated by the DOE in 2007, has incubated the emergence of 58 U.S. startups. The program has leveraged $104 million in federal money to generate more than $1.7 billion in private sector investment, or nearly $18 of private sector buy-in for every dollar of taxpayer support.

The long-term SunShot vision is for the U.S. to get 14 percent of its electricity from solar by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050 and to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour.

“Over the last three years, the cost of a solar energy system has dropped by more than 70 percent,” DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz said in announcing the awards. The new investments will back more programs that reduce “soft costs like permitting, installation and interconnection” and “improve hardware performance and efficiency.”

Sun Number, previously profiled on the RVC blog here, was co-founded by Herrmann and Ryan Miller after receiving a $400,000 grant last year from the Sunshot Incubator. Sun Number used the funding to develop a tool to make it easier, faster and less expensive for both homeowners and solar companies to analyze the solar potential individual properties. The tool, known as a Sun Number Score, engages consumers by providing a solar analysis of their home or office building with an easy to understand score between 1 and 100, and then putting them in touch with a local solar professional. Solar professionals are able use the tool to reduce the costs of customer acquisition, often called ‘soft costs’.

If you would like to learn more about Sun Number, visit their website or contact David Herrmann at david.herrmann@sunnumber.com

Guest Post by James Lester, Managing Consultant with Cleantech Finance

Despite some well publicized difficulties for cleantech investors, one area in particular has been a very rewarding place for investors to put their money. An innovative business model known as third-party ownership, combined with the falling price of solar modules, has led to a boom in the US solar market. Residential solar installations in 2012 reached 488 megawatts, a 62 percent increase over 2011 installations. According to GTM Research, a solar photovoltaic system is installed every four minutes in the U.S.  A Colorado company is poised to take full advantage of this booming market, by providing unique data that give homeowners and solar installers a clear and simple assessment of a building’s solar potential.

sun number

Sun Number, co-founded by David Herrmann and Ryan Miller is building off a $400,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Incubator, awarded last year to develop a tool to make it easier, faster and less expensive for both homeowners and solar companies to analyze the solar potential individual properties. The tool, known as a Sun Number Score, engages consumers by providing a solar analysis of their home or office building with an easy to understand score between 1 and 100, and then putting them in touch with a local solar professional. Solar professionals use the tool to reduce the costs of customer acquisition.

The DOE’s SunShot program established a new $10 million competition last year for innovative, sustainable, and verifiable business practices that reduce what’s are known as “soft costs”. The cost of acquiring customers and designing systems to fit their homes represents about 45% of all balance of systems costs in the U.S. rooftop residential solar market, according to the DOE. These high marketing costs, by some estimates as high as almost $5,000 per residential customer, create barriers for both the potential solar energy consumer and the solar installer. While soft costs have fallen as the solar industry grows, experts believe that further declines must occur in order to for solar to reach grid parity with other energy sources.

A large part of these soft costs results from several different issues with the acquisition process. In some cases, an on-site visit occurs by a professional to estimate the solar potential and energy requirements/capability of a residential or commercial rooftop. This process is not only costly, but often slows down the consultation process with the customer by several days. In many other cases, professionals use Google Earth or another imagery based program to try to estimate the size and location of the system. This often results in inaccurate readings due to guesses on nearby shading and rooftop pitch angles. These imprecise estimates lead to poorly designed systems and reductions in energy savings benefits.

This is where the market opportunity for Sun Number lies. The company streamlines the solar installer’s customer acquisition process. Utilizing high-resolution aerial data, advanced GIS technology and proprietary algorithms, Sun Number reduces these soft costs by providing an accurate, inexpensive, and quick analysis of the property allowing salespeople to screen out unsuitable properties on first contact. Using only a street address and Sun Number’s easy to use interface, solar companies can immediately obtain information about a property’s solar suitability that was previously only available if they sent an employee on-site for a lengthy inspection.

“The trend in solar installations is that soft costs are increasing as a percentage of overall costs, in part due to the labor-intensive analysis necessary to evaluate the solar potential of a rooftop. Not only is it costly, but it slows the sales process to a crawl as both the provider and the customer are forced to wait for their schedules to align and the weather to cooperate. Our goal was to develop a tool that eliminates those high costs and allows providers to get that information instantly,” said Herrmann.

houses

The Sun Number Score represents the solar suitability of a building’s rooftop on a scale from 1 to 100, with 100 being the ideal rooftop for solar. Using a proprietary data set, Sun Number determines the solar-suitable square footage of a building by taking into account factors of importance to solar installers, including:

  • The pitch of every roof section
  • The orientation of every roof plane
  • Shade created by surrounding buildings that might impact solar potential
  • Shade created by surrounding vegetation that might impact solar potential

Additionally, Sun Number Scores will take into account regional factors such as:

  • Average sunshine for the market
  • Atmospheric conditions that may impact solar potential
  • Availability of local solar incentives
  • Regional cost of electricity for calculation of solar savings

While Sun Number considers themselves a ‘data-focused company, the company has much in common with the new wave of energy-related technology, dubbed ‘cleanweb’, which is increasingly getting the attention of venture capitalists for its promise of applying Internet business models and “big data” to clean energy. While many investors have been frightened from investing in ‘cleantech’ companies, this area in particular is attracting a lot of attention.

The Cleanweb, coined by venture capitalist Sunil Paul, describes technology companies that leverage the surge of available data in combination with the internet, social media and mobile to address society’s current resource constraints. When asked about the market potential of cleanweb, Paul said, “The cleanweb is the ability to distribute software and services on top of that infrastructure that makes it more efficient, and that is the next big evolution in cleantech.”

Rob Day, a partner with Black Coral Capital sees that there is significant interest from the venture capital community around the cleanweb business models and system integration. He describes these models as (sometimes financial-oriented, sometimes web-oriented, sometimes software and controls oriented, sometimes deployment-oriented, sometimes just plain services.

Sun Number has found a unique way to deploy rich data sets to reduce costs and increase the growth of the enormous market of solar rooftop installations. Thus far, Sun Number has processed data on over 7 million buildings in 12 metro areas.  The company plans to expand to more cities in 15 to 18 states that are best suited to the growing solar market. The company is also developing a customer focused interface, or ‘dashboard’ that will incorporate the next generation of Sun Number scores, which will include local economic incentives and changing installation and permitting costs. The company plans to implement a dynamic scoring system, which will notify consumers if their Sun Number Score has changed due to recent changes in policies or market conditions.

Herrmann comments, “It is estimated that the solar industry spent over $200M on residential customer qualification and acquisition in 2012, much of it on inaccurate and expensive solutions.  Sun Number is helping fuel the solar market growth by making available accurate low cost data that identifies properties and people that are most likely to purchase solar.”

If you would like to learn more about Sun Number, visit their website or contact David Herrmann at david.herrmann@sunnumber.com