An Indianapolis homeowners association prevented a man from installing solar panels on the street-facing side of his roof. Why? They didn’t “fit the aesthetic expectation of the community,” according to Energy News Network. And in Washington, D.C., historic preservation officials prevented residents of historical neighborhoods from installing rooftop solar.
Fortunately, both these stories have a happy ending. These residents turned to Sistine Solar, a startup that makes a patented solar panel overlay called SolarSkin that can either make rooftop panels blend in with any roof or add artful design to a commercial building.
Sistine Solar’s VP of Product, Anthony Occidentale, developed the company’s proprietary algorithm that customizes the roof-matching overlays based on a photo, taking into account color science, materials science, and humans’ visual perception. Think of it as a screen protector for your phone: it can be easily applied, and doesn’t prevent the panel from doing its job—up to 90 percent of sunlight passes through the overlays’ design.
Sistine’s founding team came up with the idea for SolarSkin while they were grad students at MIT in 2012. And at first, it really was just an idea.
“It was more a philosophy, an inspiration that started it—the belief that design can get more people excited about solar,” Co-founder and CEO Senthil Balasubramanian says. “It’s sort of taking a leaf out of the books of companies like Apple and Tesla. When you combine great engineering with beautiful design, you create products that really transcend a rational connection with consumers and make an emotional connection. We felt that solar, and energy in general, lacks that emotional appeal, and we thought that with design we could create that with solar.”
By 2016, he’d developed that idea into a product with both residential and commercial uses.
SolarSkin has limitless potential for branding and advertising. The company recently installed a branded rooftop design for Whistle Pig, a Vermont whiskey brand. This type of installation allows businesses to have a unique design and to demonstrate their sustainability commitments to customers.
Sistine Solar’s creative director, Samantha Holmes, is a mosaic artist. Holmes leads the design work for branded installations. “It’s art plus technology,” Balasubramanian explains.
The four-person company has installations in 10 states and is generating revenue. In 2020, Sistine Solar will develop SolarSkin’s advertising use case. The company plans to offer SolarSkin for off-premises advertising signage, akin to billboards. This application is ideal for airports, stadiums, and malls. Intrigued? Interested brands can sign up here.
“Where we think we could truly open up the market is by combining the power of marketing with solar,” Balasubramanian explains. “By doubling up solar panels as not just energy generation but also a branding medium, you allow the power of marketing dollars to fund these projects, which makes them incredibly more viable.”
Sistine Solar is a longtime Greentown Labs member. Balasubramanian brought the company to Greentown in 2013, filling the prototyping and office space void left when he graduated from MIT.
“The single biggest thing that I think truly sets apart Greentown is the lab space, and specifically the support there is for hardware businesses,” Balasubramanian says. “That’s invaluable—we couldn’t have afforded a space where we could build physical products. We’ve used the machine shop, we’ve used Artisan’s Asylum to do some prototyping. None of those things would have been possible on our own.”
Balasubramanian notes that the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) has been “a big part of our growth,” from funding interns to investing in the startup. Sistine Solar’s vice president of product started out with the company as a MassCEC intern.
Greentown Labs is a community of bold, passionate entrepreneurs creating solutions for today’s biggest climate and environmental challenges. Located in Somerville, Mass., Greentown Labs is the largest cleantech incubator in North America, operating a 100,000 sq. ft. campus comprised of prototyping and wet lab space, shared office space, a machine shop, electronics lab, and a curated suite of programs and resources. Greentown Labs is home to more than 100 startups and has supported more than 250 since its inception.