The next Bill Gates? Dr. Sebastian Groh MD and Founder of SOLshare
Please would you share with our readers a bit about your background and why you decided to venture to Bangladesh?
I am originally from a village in Germany and always had a keen interest in development economics throughout my education, propelled by books like The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World by Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz. I first came to know about Bangladesh’s solar program in 2008 while still at university, through attending a talk called Doing Business with the Poor. Years later, on my way to a PhD on the role of energy in development processes, I went to Stanford to learn more about entrepreneurship in 2013 (Stanford Ignite). Shortly after I headed towards the country whose solar home system (SHS) program, the biggest in the world, I believed to be the key to launching an innovative model for energy sharing. I arrived here to 4 million SHSs installed in households across off-grid communities in the country, and among those millions of systems was a vast amount of excess energy, up to 30%, that is left unstored. The energy infrastructure was already set, what the people needed was a way to share the unused electricity. Thus was born SOLshare in 2013. 2. Solshare is changing the accessibility of electricity in rural and somewhat isolated areas of Bangladesh.
Would you mind giving us a brief overview of the concept of peer to peer electricity sharing?
Our peer-to-peer solar micro-grid, SOLgrid, is an energy exchange network that interconnects households and microbusinesses with and without solar home systems allowing users the freedom to use the energy as a producer, consumer or a prosumer (SHS owner who can buy and sell electricity). To perform energy exchanges, the grid relies on the SOLbazaar, an IoT-driven platform comprising a metering, distribution and mobile payment system that monetizes the excess solar energy along the value chain with mobile money in real time. In simple terms, SOLshare allows users to dynamically share electricity earning a direct income from the sun. 3. Is this essentially democratising access to the grid using renewable technology? One could certainly say that, yes. SOLshare believes that the new energy world is fuelled by the 5 D’s: Decentralization, Decarbonization, Digitization, Democratization and Disruption. The essence of democratization through technology is to provide access to certain services and capabilities rapidly to more people. In our case that means instead of people waiting for the grid to expand to their respective house or shop, people can take their fate into their own hands, generating and storing their own (solar) electricity. They transition from a passive consumer to a solar entrepreneur. We are on verge of breaking another glass ceiling by interconnecting of one of our peer-to-peer grids to the national grid through a single point. Now the very same people who were once left behind, have the option to copower the country! 4.
Do you think renewable energy could be the answer to electricity shortages in frontier markets and would this be affordable to governments on a grand scale?
My answer here would be a clear YES. Or would you say that spending $423 billion a year on fossil fuel subsidies is an effective use of taxpayers’ money? The justification is often that we need to ensure energy is cheaper for poorer people. But aren’t there better ways? Aren’t we already showing that it is possible?
You have been rather vocal in your excitement about the start-up sector in Bangladesh. Could you share some of the most interesting ventures or innovations that you have seen?
When I came to Bangladesh (in 2014) and started talking “startup”, the concept was very alien to most, and it was hard hiring people because from a cultural point of view, being in a startup was not considered “good marriage material”. This has changed dramatically for the better in the past years. Of course, there are growing pains, and some voices for protectionism against foreigners, and so on, but overall, the sector has made tremendous progress. Now it is also up to the local big corporations to warm up to the idea to invest some of their profits in upcoming startups, as well as for the international investor community to put ESG dollars where they can have the largest impact rather than taking the most convenient path. The Bangladesh startup ecosystem has the most players in the e-commerce space, but it is encouraging to see startups in other spaces, like edtech, healthtech, cleantech etc. show first signs of success.
Will SOLshare be entering other markets and are there ways for corporates to take part in this exciting journey?
We are, and it is very exciting right now. We have expanded our technology stack to emobility, and are taking a big bet on this sector. Would you believe that Bangladesh today has more EVs on the road than Tesla has sold cars globally? With our SOLmobility play, we believe we have found a niche technology offering that allows larger corporates in the space to aggressively launch better battery technologies, improve the entire value chain, adding three essential elements to the sector: higher energy efficiency, more RE, and a more grid-friendly approach. In a booming market of more than 2 million EVs on the road (at 30% YoY growth), we believe this e-mobility model is ready to be charged for large-scale deployment. Since SOLmobility requires EV drivers to top up their accounts with mobile money, mobile operators can tap into this emerging surge of digital inclusion by opening up more in rural markets.
You were a finalist in the Earthshot Prize Global Alliance. Please tell us about that and the kind of support you won as well as what innovation/development of your idea would you like global leaders to take note of and implement for the Sustainable Development Goals worldwide?
The biggest reward that came with the tag of being an Earthshot Finalist, which was the ingress into a community that is consciously working to save our planet through innovative and sustainable solutions. In Glasgow, SOLshare was able to showcase our technology at COP26 and connect with several top-tier multinational corporations and global changemakers like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg who were impressed by our model’s core, powered by communities that are actively fighting against climate change by empowering themselves. We are advancing to a world where energy is increasingly being linked with another sector, transport. Electrifying transport is a major step towards building future-proof communities, but in order to reduce carbon emissions on a large scale, we need small-scale solutions that focus on making energy infrastructures smarter, such as electric 3-wheelers running on smart battery technology. 8. If you were an international investor what would be your next investment? I would go with Larry Fink, Chairman & CEO of BlackRock: “The next 1,000 unicorns won’t be search engines or social media companies, they’ll be sustainable, scalable innovators - startups that help the world decarbonize and make the energy transition affordable for all consumers.” And if I might add, don’t always look West. At times, big innovations come from places we least expect!