A robot to clean skyscraper windows was among the many business ideas Kyle Cobb came up with in high school.
Now, the graduate student in the UCLA Anderson School of Management is helping to build a company that uses robots to clean not skyscrapers, but solar panels.
The company, Greenbotics, builds robots to remove dirt and dust from solar panels. Cobb’s longtime friend, Marc Grossman, came up with the idea when he worked at eSolar, a solar thermal plant.
Grossman said the two standard methods for cleaning solar panels are either by hand-washing or power-washing. Dirt on solar panels can reduce their productivity by 3 to 7 percent, but both existing cleaning methods are expensive because of high labor and water costs, Grossman said.
Realizing that there was an untapped market for a cheaper solution to cleaning the panels, Grossman began to design a prototype robot.
“I noticed the need, and since I had some experience building cleaning vehicles, I built (the prototype),” Grossman said. “I’ve started alone, and I’ve had friends that have come onboard throughout the project.”
Greenbotics was created last fall by Cobb, Grossman and Cedric Jeanty, one of Grossman’s college friends from the California Institute of Technology. Their approach is a new one, and it has been receiving attention.
Last week, Greenbotics came in second place in the U.S. Department of Energy’s First Look West clean energy challenge, a national competition that takes place over several months. The company also came in first at the California Clean Innovation Conference, a clean energy forum with a business competition.
Since the company’s inception, Cobb has brought on three other graduate students from the Anderson School of Management to help run Greenbotics.
Caleb Tommasini is one of the graduate students who has worked with the rest of the Greenbotics team to create a business plan and financial model, as well as reached out to potential customers and investors.
Tommasini and the two other Anderson students are working for Greenbotics as part of their master’s thesis.
“Starting a business, you have nothing,” Tommasini said. “Figuring out how to dedicate time when there is everything to do is challenging.”
While Greenbotics was beaten by a team from Stanford in the Department of Energy competition, the company still won $60,000 and was also invited to travel to the White House in June to give an additional business pitch, or description of its product and business plan.
“Last week was as big of a week as a young company can have,” Cobb said. “With just a little money, we can go out and expand.”
In the California Clean Innovation Conference at UCLA last Friday, Tommasini gave a 90-second speech for the company for the Fast Pitch competition.
Although it was his first time pitching the company, he won and earned a $10,000 prize for Greenbotics.
“They clearly had the best idea, (potential) and were ready to implement,” said Wayne Chomitz, director of the Fast Pitch competition and also a graduate student in the Anderson School of Management.
A major advantage for Greenbotics in both the competitions is the team’s combination of engineers and businessmen, said Aviv Eyal, an Anderson graduate student who joined Greenbotics along with Tommasini.
Cobb and his fellow classmates plan to continue assisting Greenbotics after graduation. Cobb said he hopes Greenbotics will continue to expand to the point it could hire him, as he and the other Anderson students are not paid employees.
Greenbotics is currently finalizing its first contract with a solar energy plant, Grossman said. The company will also be competing in the final round of the upcoming Anderson School of Management Knapp Venture Competition at the end of this month.