On a sunny afternoon, Norman “Finn” Findley stands beneath a canopy of shiny solar panels that covers a parking lot adjacent to what will be Atlanta’s new football stadium.
“It blows people’s minds,” Findley said, explaining to two visitors how his company’s QuadPod Solar Canopy system will work. “It still blows my mind a little bit.”
Findley is CEO of the startup Quest Renewables, and this project is one of their most expansive undertakings to date. It comprises two sets of canopies that measure about 130 feet by 250 feet each.
Solar canopies are high ground-clearance structures designed for solar panels, but they also function as carports by providing shade for vehicles parked beneath them.
Quest Renewables’ technology allows for about 90 percent of the canopy construction to take place on the ground. Then, cranes hoist the solar panels up in the air to mount them atop the company’s specially engineered trusses and members.
The total system will produce 617.5 kilowatts of power for each hour of sunlight. When fully operational, the system will generate enough electricity to power nine home games per season.
For Findley, this show-and-tell at the stadium is all in a day’s work. This particular day will be filled with meetings. Some are planned — there’s the staff meeting, a new employee orientation, and an investor call — but others come up unexpectedly, such as an impromptu meeting with another investor who is touring the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), the startup incubator that’s home to Quest Renewables’ operations.
“This is an angel investor,” said Frank Tighe, ATDC’s lead entrepreneur-in-residence and advisor to Quest Renewables’ leadership team, making the introduction between Findley and the visitor. “He wanted to know a little bit about ATDC, and I wanted to take him around to meet some of the companies.”
Straight away, Findley goes into presentation mode, giving his 30-second “elevator pitch” to the visitor, explaining as succinctly as possible what his company does and how it creates value for its customers.
“We manufacture racking systems that hold solar panels up off the ground for solar commercial installations at lower cost and in a shorter time frame,” Findley said, before going into a deeper conversation with the investor.
Planned or unplanned, these opportunities are all part of the pattern in the life of a startup CEO, said Findley, a former Coca-Cola executive who left the beverage giant in 2016 to focus on Quest Renewables full time.
And while each new day is different, Findley pointed out, he begins and ends each one the same way.
“It’s get the kids up and out the door for carpool to school and get out to the gym,” the married father of two said. “Then it’s work and then to get out in time to go home and put the kids to bed.”
Although Findley has always had an entrepreneurial mindset, he joined The Coca-Cola Company in 1996 and held several managerial positions in sales and marketing.
Going the corporate route before venturing into the startup world was part of a long-term career strategy.
“I’ll take risks, but only calculated risks,” Findley said. “And for me, the corporate life made sense 20 years ago, while I was taking some risks on the side through investing in some startups.”
Over time, his entrepreneurial interest would grow, and in 2013, a friend introduced him to Joseph Goodman, who at the time was a senior research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, Georgia Tech’s applied research and development organization.
“Our mutual friend encouraged us to meet, and we met once a month to see how things were going with his research,” Findley said, explaining that their matchmaking friend thought his commercialization experience at Coke could be beneficial to Goodman. “Joseph said he thought there might be a business in his research, but he couldn’t be certain. As we spent time together and I saw how things were going, I got to understand the size of the business opportunity.”
The year after that initial meeting, Findley, along with Beau Baldock and Will Arnold, founded Quest Renewables, licensing a patent from Georgia Tech based on research that Goodman and others at the Institute had conducted.
On Quest Renewables’ team, Goodman is chief technology officer, Baldock is senior vice president of supply chain, and Arnold is senior vice president of operations.
“I went to Babson College to get my MBA in entrepreneurship, and what they tell you is, the three most important things to have are a strong team, a strong team, and a strong team,” Findley said. “If you have a great idea but a weak team, you won’t be able to execute on that idea.”
As the founding team members began to build the company, they went through Georgia Tech’s VentureLab, the Institute’s startup and incubation support program for Tech faculty and students who want to create companies based on their research.
After graduating from VentureLab, Quest Renewables was accepted into ATDC’s Signature portfolio. ATDC, a sister incubation program to VentureLab, works with entrepreneurs across Georgia (no Georgia Tech affiliation required) who have a proven business model and customers, and are most likely to succeed long term in the marketplace.
The Georgia Tech research that got Findley’s attention led to a foundation design and support structure that takes up less physical space and uses less than half the steel found in traditional solar canopy construction. Because of the design and the weight it can support, the canopy can hold more solar panels than other canopies without having to expand the support structure’s footprint.
The goal behind the initial research and development was to see if there was a way to increase cost efficiencies in the non-photovoltaic part of solar panel installations, Findley said. That meant focusing on the labor, support structure, and electrical costs. The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative funded the original research.
The design is a modular space frame, which makes it easier to construct and allows crews to erect the canopies in half the time it takes to build competing structures.
“We’re extremely efficient from the standpoint that we can put them up faster, we can put more of them up per acre — so we can generate more power over a given parking lot — and we can put them up generally at a lower cost to the customer,” Findley said.
Since the solar canopy structures are elevated, they create functional parking lots in addition to energy.
“We can build on surface parking lots and elevated parking decks, which allows us to produce the energy close to where the power is needed, which puts less stress on the electrical grid because you don’t have to produce it in south Georgia, for example, and then try to pipe it all the way up here,” Findley said.
While the energy industry doesn’t track the solar canopy sector specifically, the solar energy business is growing and accounted for 39 percent of all new electric capacity that was added to the U.S. electric grid in 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a trade group based in Washington, D.C. The industry attracted $23 billion in investments in 2016, up from about $18.3 billion in 2015, according to SEIA/GTM Research’s U.S. Solar Market Report and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Under Findley’s leadership, Quest Renewables tripled its revenue between 2014 and 2015, repeating that feat again in 2016. The company projects it will quadruple revenue in 2017.
Partnering with Gentry, Quest Renewables presents challenges to his students, who are tasked with coming up with ways to improve the canopy’s efficiency.
“The question we asked them is, do you see where we could be better and more efficient in our use of materials,” said James Keane, Quest Renewables’ system specialist and a 2013 Georgia Tech graduate with a bachelor’s degree in architecture.
“We’re asking them whether there is a more optimal size for these components or whether they should somehow be designed differently.”
The technology has garnered the company some national attention. In the spring of 2016, then-U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz visited Georgia Tech, noting the Institute’s role as a leader in developing innovative energy solutions in the Southeast and meeting with a select group of ATDC companies in the energy space, including Quest Renewables.
That same year, the Georgia Research Alliance, which seeds and funds startup companies in the state, announced it was making an investment in Quest Renewables via its GRA Venture Fund, which was established to finance high-potential companies spinning out of Georgia’s universities.
The stadium initiative is the largest to date for Quest Renewables, though the company has other projects in its portfolio, including a canopy array at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, and projects in other states including Maryland, Oregon, California, and Maine.
One recently completed project is with Standard Solar, a Rockville, Maryland-based company that specializes in the development and financing of solar electric systems.
The company hired Quest Renewables to design and put together a canopy for a Rockville-area parking deck.
Parking decks are more challenging than surface lots for solar canopy projects, said C.J. Colavito, Standard Solar’s director of engineering.
That’s because the canopy has to be integrated within and anchored to an existing structure and requires a customized engineering approach, he said.
“There are a number of things Quest does well where they are able to add value where other providers have struggled,” Colavito said, adding that his firm is working on another project with Quest Renewables, scheduled for completion by the second quarter of 2017. “One of the things Quest does better than anybody else is, they have a system that’s capable of having very long spans between connections. You get a lot more density at lower costs than other systems because of their proprietary truss system while maintaining the canopy’s structural integrity.”
Accolades such as this come with a hiccup that most startups would love to have: demand for services — so much so that the company is scaling back its growth. Findley wants each customer to have a quality experience.
“We created such a compelling product that we have demand that exceeds our ability to deliver a quality customer experience, so we’ve been ratcheting back our growth to make sure that every customer we work with is delighted,” he said.
This approach, he said, fits in with the company’s long-term goal regarding its place and impact on the industry.
“The inspiration for our company comes from a very big-picture perspective. The idea that we could lower the cost of solar and be able to produce it near where the demand is located while still using existing spaces like parking lots rather than covering up natural green fields with solar panels is what drives what we do,” Findley said. “What we would really like is that in 10 years, for people to say that we really made solar and renewable energy to be preferential to fossil fuels.”