America's Coolest College Start-ups 2011
ENERGY

Harnessing the Sun More Efficiently

Stanford University sophomore Tom Currier might seem part mad-scientist, but his "death ray" is attracting investor attention as he grows an innovative company.
 The Mad Scientist : Stanford University's Tom Currier.

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The Mad Scientist: Stanford University's Tom Currier.

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"We make really low cost death rays," Tom Currier says, chuckling.

Currier, 19, is part bit mad genius, part Beaver Cleaver. He says he's been obsessed with energy since the age of nine, when he started his first company, ScanBoy, to help pay for magnets he used to explore the concept of magnetic energy. Since then, he's launched nine successful companies, as well as the Minnesota Student Energy Project, a non-profit he founded in high school, which has raised more than $140,000 and has installed solar panels on his hometown high school.

Perhaps Currier's biggest strength is his ability to dream big. Before he was a freshman at Stanford, Currier was beginning to research his next big project: a heliostat energy device. His aim with the heliostat? To solve the world's growing energy crisis. Since then, he's filed three patents for his invention, and has launched Black Swan Solar out of his dorm room.

The heliostat does indeed function like a death ray: Currier explains that it's not all that different than a field of mirrors that bounce sunlight to one central point. By harnessing the sun's heat in one focal point, the possibilities for alternative sources of energy become a lot less finite. Using existing coal infrastructure, Currier believes his technology is scalable, cleaner, and ultimately greener than gas.

Coming from a technical background, one of Currier's biggest challenges has been his difficulty in relating his ideas to friends, family, and investors. "I thought that once you showed an investor 'this is how the idea works,' they'd be like 'OK, it's a no-brainer, here's $20 million,'" he says. "I realized I have to get better at communicating this idea. and I have to get better at understanding at what a go to market strategy entails."

Although Currier has been exploring improving the efficiency of solar-power harnessing for nearly nine years, Black Swan Solar officially launched in 2010. Currier spent last summer working 80- to 100-hour weeks, diving deep into the technology, and building prototypes. In October, Black Swan Solar closed its first round of funding, and plans to close its next round soon. Currier currently employs two engineers, and brought on Dr. Wasiq Bokhari, an executive with more than a decade of energy experience, as the company's chief executive. Currier credits Bokhari, whom Currier met through Stanford's entrepreneurship club, with much of his company's success.

"When you're launching an energy company, you're selling to utilities," Currier says. "I knew that they wouldn't really want to buy from a 19-year-old. So I tried recruiting the best CEO possible that was well-networked in the energy. And that took me to the end of my freshman year."

As a serial inventor, Currier says his ultimate dream is to open an invention shop in New Zealand with his dad, where he wants to explore solar energy. And why New Zealand? "The beauty of solar is you go where the sun is.

 

Last updated: Mar 1, 2011




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