Well howdy, y’all! (Obviously read that as Dolly Parton enthusiastically greeting a venue of adoring fans.) Welcome back to our limited series, "What Would Dolly Parton Do? 9 to 5 in the Climate Tech Sector." This week, I’m taking Dolly’s lyrics of "We’ll Sing in the Sunshine" to heart by highlighting solar tracking company Sunfolding. Don’t worry, the only singing I’m including here will be from Dolly herself. But I did attach a GIF of myself jamming to her music at the end of the newsletter. You’re welcome.
Sunfolding, as I already said, is a solar tracking company. If you’re unaware of what solar tracking is, don’t worry. Leila Madrone, chief technology officer and founder of Sunfolding, explains the mechanics in the most digestible manner below.
Some questions and answers have been modified for length and clarity.
Leah Garden: [Pointing at the constructed and functioning solar panels and solar trackers at the company’s Alameda headquarters] So this is the Sunfolding Tracker. Could you explain what a tracker is and how it works?
Leila Madrone: Solar trackers are the mechanics that move the panels to follow the sun. And we’re making a new kind of air-compressed solar tracker here. We install black, lung-like pieces under the solar panel, which are each controlled by air pressure and connected with air tubing. And so what’s so neat about that is that you can create a machine that’s really simplified compared to everything else available on the market. Most panels are connected with lots and lots of steel to a motor and gearbox, which then moves the solar panels into the best position to capture the sun. We’re doing it a different way. We are using the air to transmit the force instead of the steel. So we’re literally replacing steel with air. And we’re also creating a system that can be as flexible as it needs to be.
Garden: And why is flexibility so important when setting up solar panels?
Madrone: Usually when you’re building a solar site, you have to do lots of grading to get a really flat base that allows you to align all the tracker systems. Because Sunfolding uses air tubes instead of steel, we can build on any kind of contoured land without needing to flatten it first. And this is nice because you’re not spending the cost for all of that grading, and it's also really important from the environmental and long-term sustainability of solar power, because you’re not killing the ecosystems to capture the renewable energy. So it ends up being a huge benefit for the cost, for the speed of deployment and for the long-term environmental impact of the site.
Garden: So what is your background? What led you to solar trackers?
Madrone: My background was originally in robotics. I got my undergrad and master’s from [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and spent the first part of my career in robotics. I ended up on the West Coast working at NASA and the Intelligent Robotics Group, which was a lifelong dream of mine. But landing your dream job, sometimes then you say, "OK, what do I do next?" And what I realized I really wanted to do was work on the energy transition and focus my career on the abatement of climate change. So I switched over from robotics into solar. I worked at a couple of companies first and learned as much as I could about the solar industry. And my experience led me to realize that even the coolest projects with ample funding weren’t enough if we couldn’t bring that technology to scale and have a real kind of competitiveness with oil and gas. And that’s what led me to create Sunfolding.
Garden: Committing to go all-in on a startup is quite the jump. What was going on in your mind that convinced you to enter the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem?
Madrone: I think you hear this a lot when you talk to anyone who does startups: If it’s not transformational, it’s probably not worth doing. Especially if your focus is hardware because it takes so long to get to market, it really has to matter. So the transformational potential of my idea was important and what I kept coming back to.
Garden: Did you have a big aha! moment for Sunfolding?
Madrone: I think the big aha! moment was twofold. First, I believed, and I still believe, that solar panel hardware should really leverage existing manufacturing and supply chains if it’s going to get to market and be profitable. Because if you have to create your own kind of brand-new, bespoke kind of manufacturing method or creative supply chain, it is going to take too long and require too much money before you even get to market. So I just kept going back to the idea of "What are all of the neatest things people are doing in manufacturing across all industries that are high-volume and low-cost and that can create a durable and long-lasting product?" So [the pressurized air compressor] wasn’t born from an urge to be creative, but rather the benefit that comes from taking advantage of existing infrastructure. So I looked to what has been happening in polymer manufacturing, especially in the automotive space, for the last few decades. And I was able to use that precedent to create a polymer-based drive system for solar tracking. And it turned out that the air was the second part of the aha! moment. I was able to make air as the underlying power system for maximized solar capture.
Garden: As a female founder and CTO, your perspective is unfortunately not the norm in Silicon Valley. Can you speak to that experience?
Madrone: When I was 20, I’d be in an electrical engineering class of 30 or 40 and be the only woman. But over the last decade, the number of women I see in power in the energy transition has really shifted. It didn’t feel like there were more than a handful before, but now it feels like there’s real representation. All over the U.S. in a lot of different industries, I think that there were barriers [for women], and much of that was due to the established social structure of men spending time together, which tended to lead to more deals and interpersonal relationships.
But then there is the other piece that I discovered: It’s harder to realize what you can do when you don’t see someone like you. And I think that makes a really big difference. Whenever you see a woman in power, just doing her thing, you realize you could also be in that role, doing your thing. And I didn’t recognize how much that would matter until I got a bit further along and saw other women rising to power in the energy transition sector. I felt such a boost in confidence and in my own voice because my leadership position wasn’t such an anomaly anymore. It’s just another thing that happens. And that’s how it should be.