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Building a better (and better looking) way to do solar

SolarBotanic Trees is doing exactly what its name sounds like

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A lot of the startups we feature in PreSeed Now are quite typical early-stage teams: founders with a product that is either almost ready to serve an obvious market, or that is a big shot a solving a major problem.

And then other times we think ‘this is interesting’ and even though it doesn’t fit the usual mould, we need to tell you all about it.

Today’s edition falls into the latter camp as we introduce you to SolarBotanic Trees.

But first:

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SolarBotanic Trees thinks there’s a better (and better looking) way to do solar power

A render of a SolarBotanic Trees design

In summary:

Premium subscribers get the full version of this article, plus a TLDR summary right here, and access to our Startup Tracker for updates about what this startup does next.

As solar panels have grown in popularity in recent years, a whole bunch of VC cash has gone into startups like Sunhero that help to accelerate the technology’s adoption.

But one thing that these companies can’t change is that most solar panels can look out of place in many locations, or worse, downright ugly.

SolarBotanic Trees is one startup looking to change that with its own take on something that a few companies have been working on for a while: ‘Solar trees’ that look something like a real tree while providing a useful level of solar power.

And it’s the second part of that puzzle that is the real challenge, especially as the panels themselves have to be smaller in order to resemble a tree.

“The difficult part is getting enough energy efficiency in the area that we're left with, so that's the struggle that we've got, and we're making advances on that all the time” says founder Harry Corrigan.

“What we're looking to do is to make something that's beautiful, that's attractive, and people will say ‘I want one of those’, but also, when they purchase it, it supplies enough energy for their home and a little bit extra so that they can sell that back to the grid.”

Initially thought, SolarBotanic is looking to develop its trees as charging stations for electric vehicles.

To counter the problem of solar energy not providing enough power for the rapid EV charging that drivers expect on the go, Corrigan says the plan is to have as many as 20 trees all connected to one large battery that can store energy to be delivered back to the trees when someone connects up their vehicle. 

Corrigan says the company has received interest from a large charging network in the US, as well as architects and councils in the UK.

One benefit of the tree form factor is it can support features like customer WiFi, security cameras, and lighting, to provide more functionality than a standard charging station in an aesthetically pleasing package.

The story so far

After growing up in Australia, Corrigan says he visited Europe for a six-month holiday in 1972. The holiday never ended, and he’s been based here ever since.

An entrepreneur at heart, he started a business selling campervans to people from Australia and New Zealand who were travelling around Europe. He says he then moved into the chemical and oil industries, and even ran a company setting up long-distance learning centres in Africa.

He says one day he was on holiday in France when the seed of the idea behind SolarBotanic came to him.

“I was looking over these beautiful fields, and I saw all these wind turbines, and I thought, ‘there's got to be a better way to do this’. And I looked up at a tree, and the idea came to me.” 

Corrigan’s original idea was for a ‘tree’ that had a form of solar panels instead of leaves, but that would also collect kinetic energy as it moved in the wind.

This would counter a problem with normal solar panels: they’re in a fixed location so can’t maximise the amount of energy they could be collecting from the sun throughout the day.

Solar Botanic Trees founder Harry Corrigan

He took the idea to a number of universities with the aim of finding a development partner, and eventually teamed up with Brunel University in London.

“I started a program where I would sponsor a Masters student, and they'd work on the leaf of the tree, or the petiole, or what have you, and they’d do their thesis on that. 

“So we went through that process over a number of years, and we came up with quite a few different designs, and we ended up having the small tree exhibited at Brunel's yearly ‘Made in Brunel’ exhibition.”

“​​It was a great breakthrough. But then we did the maths on it and realised that that was just going to cost too much money, and nobody could afford it.” 

This eventually led to the current design which is focused on balancing practicality, aesthetics, and cost.

Corrigan says there’s still plenty of work done to refine the design, and write software that can optimise the performance of the tree, whatever position it’s in.

The current phase of this process involves testing the leaves separately from the tree, as they work towards a test of the full tree in what Corrigan only describes “one of the windiest places in Great Britain.”

Want to find out more? Read on 👇

And there’s more!

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  • SolarBotanic Trees’ funding and investment plans

  • Founder Harry Corrigan’s vision for the future of the company

  • How SolarBotanic Trees squares up to the competition

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