Robert Schrimpff’s Light-bulb Moments

Robert 2One INSEAD alumnus is demonstrating the power of education in all kinds of ways.

“The inspiration for the business began with my German uncle and my childhood in Colombia,” says Robert Schrimpff MBA’06J, founder of Solar für Kinder, in a surprisingly British accent. “But I couldn’t have dreamt of doing this without INSEAD.”

First, the childhood: “It’s the classic INSEAD back-story,” admits Robert. Brought up in Colombia by a German father and English mother, he confesses that his expat childhood was a charmed existence, but remembers being surrounded by local people who were struggling. “That planted a seed,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do something meaningful.”

It was thanks to the German uncle that the seed grew. “Over 20 years ago he was one of the founding fathers of the Feed-in Tariff. Without them solar power would still be a dream,” says Robert proudly. The Feed-in-Tariff, which exists in different versions worldwide, is a subsidy mechanism that enables renewable energy to be installed in large quantities and thus become cheaper. It made solar a viable business proposition. “But at that time, you still had to be a green enthusiast to do it,” explains Robert. “It seemed impossible that solar power could ever make a difference.”

Since then the industry has grown 10,000-fold to become a $100 billion a year industry. Prices have dropped by a factor of 20 and have started to compete with conventional electricity prices. Solar now generates 1% of global electricity. Soon there will be no need to subsidise it any more. But new business models are still needed to accelerate growth and achieve 100% renewables in our children’s lifetime.

Robert recalls, “Ten years ago a friend who was working at the Carbon Trust told me to get ready, because solar was going to move from the sandal brigade to the MBA brigade.”

From geek to green
Robert got ready. But it would take years to become one of the new breed of MBA energy evangelists. By 2005, he had already set up various internet companies including the original Hotels.com, which fell victim to September 11th, and netXtra.net, which non-profits to be more effective by using the internet. And the idea of a business involving solar energy was still nagging away.

“I was an internet geek who wanted to go green,” says Robert. “The problem was that I had to learn about finance and strategy, so that I didn’t make the same mistakes as before. And I still had little knowledge or network in renewables.”

The solution was, you guessed it, INSEAD.

Installed in INSEAD Singapore, Robert set to work. He co-founded the Energy Club, which rapidly grew to be one of the school’s largest student societies, and organised the first INSEAD renewable energy conference. “I’d never have done it without Professor Phil Anderson’s help,” he says. “And the late Professor Patrick Turner was another great supporter. I wish I could show him what I am up to now. I think he would be proud.”

Yet, even after 11 intensive months of learning and networking across two campuses (including the ‘First Hundred Days’ elective), Robert hadn’t found his light-bulb idea. And the more he learned, the more he realised what was left to learn. Eventually, he joined a venture capital firm in Munich – with responsibility for investments in renewables and the internet. He knew they were the two key ingredients of his future business. He just hadn’t found the whole recipe.

From MBA to VC
It was during the eight years in VC that the idea started to crystallise. At the same time, Robert’s own children had progressed from INSEAD babies through kindergarten – and seemed keen to learn about renewable energy. It dawned on him that the potential carbon savings and educational gains from covering schools in solar panels were huge.

Robert

The idea, it turned out, had already taken off in the UK. But the market was still young. And no one was really tapping the potential of the internet. Robert calculated that there were approximately 24,000 schools in the UK, which according to government figures spent half a billion pounds (€675 million) on electricity a year. If every school installed enough solar panels to generate just 40kW, carbon emissions could be reduced by 500,000 tonnes a year – equivalent to taking 100,000 cars off the road.

From idea to business model
Further calculations revealed a business model that could both provide investors with a reasonable long-term return and equip schools with free solar panels. As Robert puts it, “Without investing a penny of their own money, schools could collectively save at least £50 million a year, which they could spend on improving children’s education.” And that’s before you count the cross-curricular possibilities of having a miniature power station on your classroom roof.

This is partly where the internet comes in. Robert’s team is still developing the educational content of SolarForSchools.co.uk – which launched as a joint venture with a local partner earlier this year – but there are already online output-tracking tools and a carbon-savings calculator.

The web is also a crucial marketing tool. “Trust is the biggest challenge in this market,” explains Robert. “It’s reasonable to be suspicious if you’re getting something for nothing, so the transparency you can achieve through the internet is essential.” Above all, the web-focused approach helps to keep marketing costs down – and the returns for schools up.

From launch to international expansion
Robert finally gave up his day job in autumn 2014. Solar for Schools has finished its initial round of investor fundraising and now has its first schools signed up. In July 2015, SolarfuerKinder.de went live. More European countries are in the pipeline, each with a local twist. In Germany, for instance, the emphasis is on Kindergartens, which are usually small and pay more for electricity than large schools. With each new country, the start-up costs go down, as the web content and functionality is easy to localise.

“I get very excited,” says Robert. “Then I remember just how many schools I need to sign up to make a living.” Fortunately, he has the massed ranks of the INSEAD network on his side. “Everyone I’ve spoken to – from the US to Vietnam – has seen the potential and offered to help,” he says. He now has potential partners, investors, researchers and promoters across the world.

Never mind the sun, don’t underestimate the power of the INSEAD network to generate electricity. 

If you would like to see how much your schools could do for the planet by going solar, visit solarforschools.co.uk for UK schools or solarfuerkinder.de for German kindergartens or email Robert@solarforschools.co.uk if you are interested in helping Robert expand further either as an investor or supporter in new countries.

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