February 26, 2007

Student Co. Cashes in on Solar Power

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“I’m not going to lie, I work a lot — probably from 8 a.m. until 1 a.m.” said Adam Farrell ’06. “But I party just as hard.”

Farrell has a jam-packed agenda as co-founder of Silicon Solar — a company with over 82,000 customers and estimated sales of $5 million that is expanding across America and into China.

“We have over 300 products, from small innovative type things to solar hot water systems,” said Patrick McDonough ’06, sales and marketing for Silicon Solar.

One such product is a solar light that sits atop real estate signs, so that they light up at night.

Silicon Solar had humble beginnings as a high school earth science project: as Farrell worked on his project, he realized that he could save money. So, instead of purchasing solar cells from Radio Shack for $5, Farrell looked into buying solar cells in bulk from a warehouse in Massachusetts. In bulk, the cells cost about ten cents.

“That’s a pretty good margin,” Farrell said.

Once Farrell bought the cells in bulk, he began “tinkering with them, to see how they worked in DC power operations.”

Farrell is an applied economics and management major, but he is as confident in designing products and writing promotional material for Silicon Solar as he is in managing a million-dollar business.

Farrell’s tinkering transformed into creating educational kits for his fellow high school students. Once the educational kits were selling, Farrell had cash flow.

The company was incorporated in 1997 in New York State. Farrell’s brother, Matthew Farrell ’05, is his business partner.

From its starting point in Farrell’s bedroom, Silicon Solar moved to his house’s basement and then to its garage. In Farrell’s business, space is at a premium: his products range from solar cells the size of bottle caps to 8×8 foot heating systems to 20×20 foot array of modular solar panels. As its business grew, Silicon Solar’s demand for space grew. When the brothers exhausted the space available in their house, they built a two-story building on their parents’ property. Within two weeks, they needed more space and moved back into their parents’ house.

As a freshman at Cornell, Farrell and his brother moved the business to a house on Maple St. The friends he made at Cornell worked part-time for him.
All the while, Farrell ran track.

“I was a decathlete, so my meets were weekend-long,” he said.
In Farrell’s sophomore year, the business moved again, to a house with yet more space.

During Farrell’s junior year, Silicon Solar made a new home in a 10,000 square foot warehouse in Bainbridge, New York.

Entrepreneurial ingenuity runs in Farrell’s family.

“I was surrounded by that way of thinking when I was a kid,” he said.

Farrell credits his uncle’s company for having exposed him to computing and website technology. Farrell started designing websites in eighth grade, and is in the process of revamping Silicon Solar’s website.

Less than a year after establishing the Bainbridge office, Silicon Solar opened a new office in southern California — a great location for solar power not only because of its sunny climate, but because of the tax credit incentives California offers solar-power users, according to McDonough.

Three months after cutting the red ribbon in San Diego, Silicon Solar has set out to conquer a new frontier: China. The company bought a factory in Xiamen, a city halfway between Beijing and Hong Kong.

“It was a move to secure production capabilities,” Farrell said. “We have a research and development team, four engineers and 65 factory workers, but we’re looking to increase our research and development staff because we are a tech-based company.”

Farrell said that the California location will also work well as a distribution point for bringing in products from China.

According to John Jaquette, executive director for Entrepreneurship@ Cornell, timing is a big part of what makes a business sink or swim. According to Jaquette, Farrell’s timing could not have been better.

“Farrell is in an energy-saving arena and has found a fitting and engaging product with a lot of uses,” Jaquette said. “He also has developed a great business structure that allows the company to bring these products at reasonable prices and still have a profit.”

“We’re not only sustainable from an environmental standpoint, but from a business standpoint, too,” Farrell said. “In terms of a business model, you can be sustainable by not allowing yourself to be cut out of the marketplace, meeting demand for your product and always being ahead of the game.”

Farrell did not start Silicon Solar for the sake of the environment, but he said that if solar energy polluted the environment, he would not have continued the business.

The company’s future is based around the growth of affiliate networks, a model of which is Amazon.com. And, aside from China, Farrell sees opportunities for growth in South America, Africa and the Southern states of the U.S., including Florida, Texas and North Carolina. Expansion throughout the U.S. would help Silicon Solar expedite delivery, according to Farrell.

“One characteristic that you can find in any entrepreneur is dogged determination,” Jaquette said. “Because you can’t imagine the amount of time, work and thought that goes into running a successful business, even when things are going well.”

For more information on entrepreneurship at Cornell, please visit: www.eship.cornell.edu