Is growing a business harder than harnessing solar energy?
By Dimis Michaelides
The hills are alive with the sound of souvla, powered by charcoal and car batteries or elbow grease. This is Cyprus, August 15, every year and on all special occasions.
Meanwhile, women are carrying wood everywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. Three billion people all over the world gather and burn wood to cook their meals. As population increases, forests are fast depleting and carbon emissions rise.
And the sun shines on.
Enter Savvas Hadjixenophontos, founder of Fornelia Ltd. He built his first solar oven in 1983, after returning to Cyprus from his studies in electronic engineering in Grenoble, France. In 2006, the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” sparked his desire to mass produce solar ovens.
The Fornelia Mini model has advantages over conventional ovens. It is efficient, high-performing, 100 per cent green, portable, safe and affordable. In conventional ovens, Hadjixenophontos explains, most energy is lost. A conventional oven has a nominal power of 3,000 Watts. By comparison, the Fornelia Mini has a nominal power of only 300 Watts, but it can cook any meal in the same time so it is 10 times more efficient. Put differently, for every 1,000 users, the collective electricity saving is 3,000,000 Watts! The reason for this incredible performance is that the Fornelia Mini is extremely well insulated. It absorbs solar energy and keeps it without losses because internal and external compartments are separated by a vacuum which does not conduct heat. You can even use it at very low ambient temperatures.
The outside of the oven is completely safe to touch, even when the inside temperature is 240° C. Customers can cook for eight people or only for one person without wasting energy. And you can take the Fornelia Mini to the beach or to camp or simply use it in your garden or balcony.
This is not the only household-scale solar oven. But, according to Savvas, most other models are so inefficient that it takes them a day to cook anything, or their insulation is insufficient or they require much attention to avoid the danger of fire.
During the last ten years Hadjixenophontos developed many different models with different methods of harnessing solar thermal energy including parabolic dishes, parabolic troughs and designs using a Fresnel lens. He also tested different ways of transferring heat energy, such as hot air, hot oil and direct heating of the oven. The biggest challenge was the design and manufacture of the parabola at a reasonable cost without compromising quality while ensuring a long lifespan. The tracking mechanism was also a challenge since the solar oven has to follow the sun to be efficient.
Today the Fornelia Mini has an attractive design and is light, portable and easy to use. There are future plans for a larger, stationary model, a model with heat storage for cooking after the sun goes down, and a model with a collector of solar energy outside and an oven/stove inside the house, like any ordinary oven/stove.
Hadjixenophontos is discovering, like many others, that the move from inventor to entrepreneur is not an easy one. For the time being he is working with his son and selling mostly in Cyprus but has also sold in Greece, France, North Korea, Germany, USA, Egypt and Senegal. Fornelia needs to double its present output to break even but believes this is easily achievable since demand is high, especially after the Paris agreement for renewable energies. Potential clients include institutions like the UNDP, refugee camps, parks, restaurants, bakeries and boat owners and, indeed, most apartment dwellers.
Scaling up such a business comes with all sorts of challenges. Working with resellers who seek high margins calls for professional salesmanship and places pressure to keep costs low. Harnessing the potential of the web demands sophisticated data-driven market segmentation and communication strategies. Presence in special events requires a lot of time investment. And the absence of direct sea lines from Cyprus make shipping harder, which is why Fornelia is looking into the potential of partnerships to set up assembly lines in at least 10 strategically chosen developing countries over the next three years.
How supportive was the start-up ecosystem in Cyprus?
“We participated in many start-up events but besides great verbal interest the benefit was, for the most part, limited to the experience gained from the event,” said Hadjixenophontos.
He said his project was awarded a grant from the government funding programme for innovation but experienced very big delays in receiving the funds. And when he sent letters to various government ministries asking for subsidies provided to green products, he was rejected.
“The Cyprus mentality is not ready for innovation. The banks also are not ready to support viable new businesses and investors are not ready for risky investments,” he said.
“I am driven by inventing, it comes naturally to me and it’s something I can’t stop doing. Of course it’s different and more difficult to set up a viable business and there are many systemic barriers. That said, creativity is in my blood, and I do believe that we can find win-wins for our customers and distributors.
“My vision for Fornelia is to provide sustainable, renewable energy at affordable prices throughout the world, contributing to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing the quality of life for millions of human beings. We aim to invest our profits in the design, development, and production of other innovative products that improve energy efficiency.”
Innovative technology involves a long journey from invention (basic research, applied research, prototyping) to entrepreneurship (manufacture and going-to-market). Each stage in the journey requires the deployment of different skills.
I would like to leave our readers today with two questions.
First, why is Cyprus not already the major centre for solar power research in Europe?
Second, how might we best help our great inventors, like Savvas Hadjixenophontos, multiply their businesses a hundredfold or more?
I think I’ll start by buying a Fornelia Mini!
Dimis Michaelides is a keynote speaker and author on innovation, creativity and leadership. He also offers workshops and change management consulting for private businesses, NGOs and public organizations. His book “The Art of Innovation – Integrating Creativity in Organizations” has been hailed as a “Bible for 21st Century CEOs” [email protected] www.dimis.org