HTDC assists innovative companies in various stages of their development. We refer to companies in the first stage as Seed or “start-up” companies that have innovative ideas for products or services … and a passion and belief in that idea.
When Darren Kimura first inquired about renting office space at MIC in 2006, he was already founder and chairman of Energy Industries*, a large national energy project developer, and a serial energy entrepreneur for over 12 years. Energy Industries had 12 offices in 3 countries and over 200 employees. Kimura had already founded Facility Solutions, a national service broker; Pacific Energy Services, an energy engineering company; Energy Conservation Hawaii, an energy retrofit company; eCONTROLS, a digital technology company; and Energy$mart, a utility consulting company. He had also already acquired the Quantum companies and other independent energy companies. His newest company, Sopogy, found the setting at MIC conducive to developing support for its Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) technology and soon decided to become a Virtual Incubation Client to tap into HTDC’s diverse technology network.
Sopogy was conceived in 2002 after Kimura’s early R&D suggested that modified concentrated solar power technology was the best option for producing energy from the sun, efficiently and at the lowest cost. Since then, the company has taken the basic design of large solar thermal power plants and shrunk it down so it can fit on a building’s roof. Sopogy’s CSP technology promises to enable widespread renewable energy production to generate electricity, create air conditioning, dry agricultural products, produce steam for industrial systems, and much more.
Sopogy’s aluminum trough-shaped solar collectors are an evolution in solar energy generation—design improvements fashioned to increase the practicality of proven technology. “We try to go after markets that already exist, providing near-term, modest solutions,” says Kimura.
Sopogy’s focus is to build a system that costs about half as much as a comparable photovoltaic system, with a return on investment in three to five years. Its innovation is the nanocoating that insulates the reflectors from salt damage, and pivots that allow the reflectors to be flipped over and protected with additional casing in a hurricane.
The company has the units manufactured from glass, aluminum and concrete in a low-cost process that is attractive to investors, and will eventually make them affordable for consumers. Sopogy is working with two different commercial models—a 2.5-foot-wide SopoFlare and a 5-foot-wide SopoNova. “We’re the only company out there that is trying to shrink these systems,” says Kimura.
Over the next year Sopogy, with 11 current employees, plans to grow to over 100 employees. In the next 3 years, the company hopes to go public. “Our market is California, Asia,” says Kimura, “Hawaii is really only our lab” Yet the entrepreneur from Hilo has no plans to see his company leave the state. “I want to leave a legacy in Hawaii.”
Sopogy Q & A
Q: Can you tell us a bit about how you got into your industry?
A: My family owned a successful contracting company so I was exposed to business and the energy business at around the age of 11 years old. I got my early professional start trying to help my dad’s clients save energy in 1992 and started my first business in 1994. My newest company is a culmination of experiences and knowledge gained since that time combined with the urgency to address global warming and break the fossil fuel addiction.
Q: Please tell us briefly about your company and what it does?
A: Sopogy is a manufacturer of a solar thermal concentrator. In our system we use mirrors to focus the energy from the sun to create steam. We use that steam to create electricity. This highly efficient use of the sun energy gives us renewable energy which helps reverse the effects of global warming and saves our customers money.
Energy Industries is a national energy project developer with a turn-key energy saving solution called “Energy Solutions as a Service.” We help businesses save energy which saves them money by taking over management of their energy systems. Our business will provide an efficiency retrofit with the most efficient technologies and we use the customer energy savings to pay for our services. Our customers also share in the energy savings.
Q: Please tell us about your initial contact with HTDC, what value you saw that caused you to become a tenant/participant?
A: I contacted HTDC when I decided to launch Sopogy because I saw how they helped companies like Hoku Scientific and Blue Lava Technologies. I was living in Seattle and was deciding on opening Sopogy’s offices in Hawaii or in California. I initially emailed Sandi Kanemori who was helpful and explained the services offered by HTDC. I learned about the virtual program, the leases and other services. We were very intrigued by the month to month leases, the entrepreneurship programs and the service provider package.
Q: How has HTDC helped your business? What were some of the most significant, memorable ways?
A: Excellent educational and diverse presentations, good vendor database, networking (CEO breakfast/lunch), expositions, positive word of mouth, and use of conference room facilities.
Q: How did the Hawaii SBIR matching grant program help your company, and why should the State continue funding it?
A:SBIRs are possibly the only form of income for small, start-up R&D companies with no commercial sale products. Without SBIR funding, these companies will not exist, we’d lose valuable jobs and talented people.
Q: What more could HTDC/the State do to assist innovative businesses like yours?
A: I would like to see more awareness for Hawaii companies. One low cost approach could be internet focused blogging on Hawaii High Tech companies. Possible newspaper or magazine articles about these companies (awareness helps companies fund raise, helps investor relations, helps sales and marketing, helps build brand). Seed funding or even small grants. Legislative positioning.
Q: What are the 3 biggest mistakes people make when starting their own business and what do you suggest for them to overcome these mistakes?
A: Lack of appropriate funding and understanding of work required to get businesses going. Suggestion: Work for someone else, grow the database of clients and potential investors, then take the plunge.
Weak legal foundation which leads to trouble with financing and exit. Suggestion: Get someone with experience to assist with your set-up, preferably a professional.
Developing bad company culture. Suggestion: Set the rules for your company right up front and over communicate with staff. Bad culture = bad companies.
Q: What was your biggest business challenge and how did you overcome it?
A: Lack of credibility – Keep your word. Work hard at getting better. Openly communicate with customers.
Q: Any advice for today’s young business person?
A: My advice comes from a life lesson. I started at 19 and spent a lot of time early in my career trying to model my approach around other business people. It wasn’t until I realized that there is no such thing as a prototypical entrepreneur and there are trillions of different ways to run a successful business that I really began to grow and learn.