Member Spotlight – June 26, 2014

alex-pino-avalanche-energyAlex Piña, CEO Avalanche Energy

Alex Piña is the CEO and founder of Avalanche Energy, which has developed an affordable solar hot water system for the residential market. An MIT graduate with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering and a M.S. in Engineering and Management, Alex moved from a career as a system engineering lead at MIT Lincoln Laboratory to building his own startup in early 2013.


Rapid Fire

What I wanted to be when I grew up: Favorite music to listen to when working: Best restaurant in Somerville:
Rocket Scientist Classic Rock The Neighborhood Restaurant

Greentown technology I wish I’d invented:

Favorite activity outside of work: Team I’m cheering for in the World Cup
Kinetic cooling for electronics Playing Ice Hockey


My Company

Why do you do what you do?

There’s so many homeowners out there who want solar but can’t get it. At Avalanche Energy, we said people should have access to the energy if they want it – that’s what we’re out there to do.

At the start, Avalanche Energy was really about my grandparents. They really wanted to install solar on their house, but couldn’t find a system that worked for them. They asked me to take a look for them, and I realized that, at the price point they wanted, there was a hole in the market.

Alex with his grandparents
Alex with his grandparents – their search for solar inspired the creation of Avalanche Energy

I have always wanted to help people, and I didn’t feel like I was making enough of an impact in defense sector. Starting my own company that brings solar to people like my grandparents who need it was a way to really make a difference.

What is top of mind right now in your company development?

Just before we moved to Greentown, we did our first full scale prototype. We’re beta testing this summer – we will have five units in the field. Initial public response has been very positive – from media coverage earlier this year we have had several people contact us, so there are 15 potential beta sites that we need to whittle down.

What are your aspirations for the company?

My dream is to be at the point where I’m competitive with Elon Musk and Solar City! In the meantime, if we can make increase the number of people using solar power and help them eliminate their bills then I will be more than thrilled with what we accomplished. One of the larger demographics where I see this really having an impact is with seniors who really need the savings. They typically own their houses, are living on a fixed income, and any savings that they can realize make their lives significantly better. My grandparents serve as a great reminder for what we hope to achieve.

My Work

What motivates you?

We went to an event back in November 2013 with four panelists from investors or VC arms of companies. We pitched to them, and all four of them said it wouldn’t work and that this was another over complication of solar. That motivates me. There are always going to be people who judge what we are doing based on previous systems that haven’t lived up to expectations, but this isn’t how we should look at new technologies. Even being so close to the technology, it has surprised me how well it has worked, so I’m motivated to show them that we are different and to prove them wrong.

What does a typical day look like?

I try to keep a very tight schedule – I’m pretty religious with my calendar.  There are so many things you can be doing, if you don’t manage your time, you’ll go around in circles.

  • I begin my work day with e-mail – setting aside time to handle things that have happened overnight
  • Often I’ll bring in advisors or mentors for meetings to update them on what we’re doing throughout the day
  • The morning is for product development – creating in CAD or working with the system hardware
  • In the afternoon, I’ll normally be talking to vendors or customers
  • And, of course, ending the day with e-mail

How does start-up life differ from your previous work or studies?

I see the difference everyday. In my work before, I built two systems from concept all the way to field deliverables and they just sat there. It was difficult to see all the effort we put into them and for it to just evaporate to prove a political point. Start-ups may be difficult and frustrating at times, but I know in the end it will make a difference. The difference for me is that this work is fulfilling and while I may be going broke, I’m happier being in this situation.

My Greentown Labs

What brought you to Greentown Labs?

When I started in January 2013, I was working out of my apartment. When you are doing a startup out of your home, there’s no way to separate life from work, it’s right next to you when you’re sleeping. There’s no chance to recharge. Plus, you can’t really bring investors in or have meetings right next to your pile of laundry.

What really separated Greentown from other incubators was the hardware focus and the lab space. When you are able to get input from other folks it makes development move a lot faster.

What’s something that has surprised you about Greentown Labs?

The random opportunities. Within the first week I was here I was able to give my pitch to U.S. Congressman Michael E. Capuano and gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk. We didn’t realize how much of that was going on!

Alex presenting Avalanche Energy’s prototype
Alex presenting Avalanche Energy’s prototype to U.S. Congressman Michael Capuano

What Greentown Labs resources do you currently use?

I’m currently in the process of getting set up with a Solidworks license. In the fall, we will be using the Altium software a lot in our design processes.

My Advice

What advice would you give to a hardware entrepreneur

Understand that it’s going to take a lot longer than you think it will. If you can prepare for that and you know it is going to be a longer haul – you can plan accordingly and it’s worth it. Hardware is hard and that’s why it’s different and that’s why it’s worth it. You get into it because you love what you’re doing.

What would help someone thrive at Greentown Labs?

Someone who thrives here is going to be the person who is willing to ask for help and use all the resources that are here. If you want to sit at your desk and not talk to folks, you’re missing out on the Greentown magic. You’ve gotta go to the events, participate in tours, and take full advantage of the community that is built here.