Total Grant Sky Competition

The following are reflections by Julian Ragragio, NUS MBA Student, 2014 Intake.

The whole project started out before business school, when I was still employed to work on solar pumps for Sunelec Photovoltaic Solutions. During my final year with that company, two important things happened. First was the release of an innovative new product which could facilitate pay-per-consumption system for solar pumps and therefore open up opportunities for development banks to participate. Second was the 20th anniversary of our main partner, Lorentz GmbH, who decided to give out 20 solar pump systems across the world free-of-charge for communities in need.

I spearheaded both the release of the new product and the 20th anniversary donations by sourcing out and selecting communities which could benefit from both initiatives. It was during this time that I began coordinating with our eventual partner, SIBAT, who had recommended to me several communities under its wing. Unfortunately, I never got any chance to see these efforts bear fruit, as I had to leave for my MBA midway through these initiatives.

At the back of my head, I always wanted to find some way to finish what I started. When I got into the NUS MBA program, I saw potential to resume this project – the cohort was blessed with a lot of latent capital – human and financial. Somehow, I wanted to harness that and turn it into a tangible project that could contribute real value. Initially, I sought to run as president for the energy club with the intention of building a platform to pursue this project. However, I got an offer to work with the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore so I decided to abstain from running as president of the energy club, lest I be burdened with too many commitments.

Our first breakthrough with resuming this project came sometime around the second semester, when I stumbled upon a grant initiative by Total SA while looking for internships. Between that time and my entry at the NUS MBA, the project was mainly on-hold, with many of the companies that I had approached rejecting or ignoring my idea. There was one particular instance when a banking executive outright refused to acknowledge my request. However, the grant initiative by Total presented that silver bullet, a chance at finally making things happen. Once I had absorbed the complexity of the grant details, I got in touch with the Social Impact Club to discuss this project – and I got a solid response. From that point onwards, a team would drive this project.

Between academic requirements, case competitions, and personal commitments, our team managed to submit all of the grant requirements in time and with sufficient quality to build confidence in our success – and no doubt this can be attributed to the team’s coherence and alignment towards its goals. To qualify us for the grant, we had to come up with the following: 1) Primer for the project. 2) Plan and write- up to inspire/source votes. 3) Technical proposal. 4) Operations and maintenance proposal. 5) Project beneficiary. 6) Partners. 7) Complete budget. 8) Proof of feasibility.

We got a call from Team Total SA in early March announcing that we had been short listed to move on in the final selection process. Although we had done our best in preparing for the grant, we were still aware that competition was stiff – there was one particular project outside of ours which was highly innovative and well funded by multinationals like EDF. That project utilized a flexible solar panel inflated on a hydrogen balloon, and was aimed at providing energy for emergency situations such as disaster response. We had to bring our proposal up a notch by focusing on our main advantage – that the solution we were proposing was 100% feasible and utilized proven technology.

During our final defense, we ran into several problems that gave us some doubt as to whether we were going to succeed in securing the grant. First was a matter of proximity. The competing teams were mostly based in France, and therefore had the advantage of being able to present in-person. Second were timing issues. The defense started a full one hour ahead of schedule; luckily we were assembled in advance, or we would have missed our defense. Third were technical issues. During the defense itself, we had to tackle interconnection problems and feedback coming from the simultaneous use of multiple laptops. Last was the issue of innovation. The panel raised a particular concern about whether or not we were utilizing enough innovative capacity to sway the judges towards our side. By the end of our defense, we had mixed feelings. I sent a final email to the judges to provide clarity towards unsettled matters related to our defense. After that, it was simply a waiting game for us.

Around a week after our defense, we received an email from Total SA announcing us as the recipients of the grant. It was a joyous moment for us – though short lived. Now, we are moving towards finalizing the conditions of the grant. From here on, we will be tackling the implementation phase.

As per our most recent meeting, in which we have assigned individual responsibilities for the team, the most immediate challenges would be dealing with the complexities of coordinating our team with SIBAT. Several activities are in order – including: 1) Finalizing the deployment schedules with SIBAT and our team. 2) Developing a budget for marketing and technical requirements. 3) Implementing a system of checks against use of funds. 4) Promoting transparency of procurement activities. 5) Building a website to increase the visibility of the project and its stakeholders via social media. 6) Raising additional funds for a pipeline of projects which we would like to tackle moving forward.

The overriding goal of this project is to promote the use of technology in addressing problems related to energy and water access for developing countries. Energy and water are primary catalysts of human development; it is an enabler of economic growth, healthcare access and higher standards of living. Now, more than ever, productivity in remote areas can be enhanced with autonomous energy through the use of solar. Local growth is a snowball effect of using this technology, and we believe we can contribute towards this goal by pursuing this project with a focused and committed mindset.