Durham-based startup Sunergi is on a quest to expand solar panel usage across the United States. No longer should only one percent of the population utilize solar power for their homes, Sunergi’s Founder and CEO Zack Polio said.
Polio is a civil engineer by trade who found himself falling in love with energy when he completed an internship at energy management company Schneider Electric as a student at the University of New Hampshire, where he graduated in 2015.
It was there that something was made clear in the back of Polio’s mind: he wanted to work in energy for the rest of his life. Even still, Polio had his fair share of bouncing around in tech, from healthcare to service operations IT. He even co-founded a residential hotel company before creating Invisible Hand Ventures in 2020, an NFT product studio focusing on building smart contracts and manufacturing coded tags for physical collectibles.
But Sunergi, his new startup, is the result of years spent wanting to come back to the energy space one day. Just founded in June of this year, Sunergi aims to provide image recognition models for solar panel plots, both current and prospective.
With satellites located globally, Sunergi is going to use photographs to find open plots that would be appropriate for commercial industrial applications to use solar panels, as well as homes that have rooftop solar panels or are ideal for them. With these images, Sunergi will be able to unlock the best solar panel plots in order to foster widespread solar adoption.
“The question now is, we have that 1 percent of people, how do we unlock that next 5 percent of people where the cost is still really high to them?” Polio said. “They are on the fence about whether they want to do it. They like the idea of sustainability, but there’s no particular practicality to it, other than sort of the hope of saving on your electricity bill one day. So how do we penetrate that 5 percent across the entire country?”
Polio’s answer is Sunergi. The ultimate goal of the software is to save customers money on solar panel installations. The B2B solution will likely be launched by the end of the year, according to Polio, who said the startup is looking to move quickly.
He’s already started thinking about funding. Although he plans to bootstrap for the foreseeable future, Sunergi will take in a family and friends round and then target a pre-seed round of $2.5 million.
“It’s a very technical project,” Polio said. “This is not just an app. This is really at the forefront of what the solar industry can be, and it’s a really fast-growing industry. I want to do it right.”
Sunergi has already expanded beyond its initial spark of a startup idea. Instead of just mapping all the solar panels across the United States, which he planned originally, Polio is looking to map everything else to see where panels potentially could do well.
As a founder going into his third venture, Polio said he’s more fully embraced the importance of being vocal and being yourself.
“Sometimes I tried to be someone that I’m not and play a role that I felt was appropriate for the space that we were in,” Polio said. “But those companies never really were my vision.”
If you take ownership in your company, you’ll never get bored and you’ll never lose passion, Polio said.
“My advice would be to find your ownership, find what you feel you own about the process or the product or the customer or whatever, and tie yourself directly to that,” Polio said. “For me, it’s the product. I love solar. I love the idea of solar. I love the sustainability and independence part of it. That’s why I started the idea.”
Creating A Startup Post-Pandemic
Beginning with a virtual workforce might have been an unorthodox startup experience in the past, but the pandemic has shown the unforeseen value of a remote team, Polio said.
“It’s a double-edged sword, because you have bad actors out there that sometimes will take advantage of it,” Polio said. “But if everything resonates from the way you do things as the leader of the company, then you should be able to weed that type of behavior out very quickly.”
It’s a matter of accountability in this day and age, and leaders have to be clear with their employees about expectations. With a vision to find the best solar plots in the United States and ultimately drive energy independence across the country, Sunergi’s mission is one that many can get behind.
“Energy independence in the United States is extremely important,” Polio said. “And we want to enable that as much as we possibly can and use the resources at our disposal to make the United States energy independent.”
Polio has especially enjoyed building a startup from the ground up in Durham, which he said is part of a region welcoming of new people and ideas, contrary to where he previously worked in Boston.
“I think that’s a big part of why Durham and the Triangle area has grown so much and has become so popular—because we’re so welcoming of others,” Polio said. “We adapt to what others bring to the table. And I think that that’s as important for a city and a region as it’s important for a company. We need to be able to adapt. We need to be able to be open-minded. And that’s what I love about being in this area.”