SEBA Competition Winner Turns Bright Idea into Promising Solar Startup

cabrera 1It seems fitting that on the final day of class for Gerald Cabrera, Executive MBA ’14, the sun is shining.

Four years prior, the future didn’t look so bright. Cabrera had made a run at inventing something he thought could change the world, but funding fell through in the flagging economy. His engineering consulting business dried up. He admits now that he didn’t have the business background to effectively get his product off the ground, and once his marriage became strained by the financial difficulties, he promised to pack away his idea so he could hold up his end of the partnership.

Not long after making that promise, Cabrera went to work for PG&E. Inquisitive and curious from a young age—“As a kid, I would always take things apart to see how they worked,” he says—the mechanical engineer flourished at PG&E, rising to a supervisor position in a matter of months.

“My manager challenged me,” he says. “He told me if I really wanted to move up in the organization, I should get my MBA. He forwarded me an email about the Saint Mary’s MBA program that day.”

Unfortunately for PG&E, that challenge would ultimately lead their talented engineer away from them.

Now, after attending SEBA's MBA program, Cabrera has found a business partner to back him. He’s quit his job at PG&E and works full time from an office in Antioch. His company, SolarFi, is taking shape, and though he’s graduated, Saint Mary’s is still a big part of his life.

During his admissions interview with Saint Mary’s, Cabrera mentioned his invention, his old consulting business, and how the failure of both had left a bad taste in his mouth. His initiative and background impressed, and he enrolled in the Executive MBA Program the following quarter.

“In my eyes it was a failure because it never got off the ground. In truth, when I put it down, my plan was to put it away and never look back on it,” he says about his business plan from 2010. “I promised my wife that I would be a provider with her. I told her that, and I lived that until about 30 minutes before the deadline of the competition.”

The competition was the 2014 Business Idea Competition—an event designed to challenge business students to build a workable business plan and present it to angel investors. Submitting to the event was more of a fishing trip than a plan to re-arrange his life. Things were going well, both at home and in the office; but nonetheless, he picked through his business plan from 2010, and remodeled it to fit the competition’s criteria.

“It was just for giggles, man,” he says. “I didn’t tell my wife about it because I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere.”

Cast a line out, see if anything bites.   

Something did.

cabrera 2

In his own estimation, Cabrera’s winning idea “could potentially change the world.” It’s a piece of hardware that wraps around streetlights like a sleeve adorned with solar panels. The initial idea was simple enough for a pro-green mechanical engineer: use solar power to make streetlights self-sufficient and return any excess power to the grid. Cabrera then took the idea a step further by adding a Wi-Fi component to the sleeve, also powered by solar, which could connect entire city streets to the Internet.

Cabrera wasn’t the only one who believed in the potential impact of his idea. Investors from the Keiretsu Forum, an angel investor group and partner with Saint Mary’s in the contest, tapped him as the winner of the Business Idea Competition, a prize that included $3,000, legal counsel, and an opportunity to pitch to a larger audience of investors at the Angel Capital Expo.

“It became real after I won,” he says. “The network that I established, just on that night alone, really cemented it. I was approached by members of the Keiretsu Forum who wanted to do due diligence with my company so they could invest, but I just didn’t have the infrastructure. I didn’t have a corporation set up, and my business plan was four years out of date. Even if they wanted to invest, I didn’t even have a corporate bank account set up to take accept the money.”

Cabrera attributes a lot of his success to the continued support from the Saint Mary's community.

“My professors really believe in what I’m doing, and they’ve offered to help me,” he says. “From manufacturing expertise, to business strategy, to the ins and outs of intellectual property—they’ve lent me their expertise to help get this company off the ground. They think this could really make a difference.”

Initial deployments for Cabrera’s technology are still on the horizon, and he has been in contact with the city of San Jose and the city of Livermore as potential test sites. There is no want for confidence in Cabrera and SolarFi, and the issues that doomed his first venture seem to have been left behind.

“The real difference between now and then is that I’m 20 times smarter now,” says Cabrera. “The knowledge that I picked up at Saint Mary’s and the connections that I’ve made are invaluable.”

Despite submitting the idea to the competition “for giggles,” Cabrera is ambitious about SolarFi.

cabrera 3“My true vision is to go global,” he says. “At this point, I feel like we could put this kind of technology in a distant point on the map—a village in Africa—and it could provide safety and lighting, as well as provide internet access in a place that doesn’t normally have it. Ideally that’s five to 10 years down the road, but I think it could be a real asset in places like that.”

But before tackling problems like city streets with Wi-Fi and lighting around the world, there was a conversation to be had at home.

“My wife didn’t even come to the competition,” he said before backtracking.

“No, no. It wasn’t like that. She was on a business trip that she couldn’t get out of,” he said with a laugh. “I called her that night and told her that I won. She was really proud and we had a long conversation. Our line of thinking was 'How many chances like this do you get in a lifetime?’ She signed off on me going after this idea, and I put in my two weeks notice.”

“I think I’ve finally found my niche,” he says. “I love the innovation part of this job—I always have—but now I understand the inner business workings too. I know the kind of culture I want to instill at my company. I know what kind of leader I want to be and how I want to inspire people. These are things that I’ve learned here.”