The next big event was the USDOT’s SBIR solicitation, looking for a new pavement system that could help pay for itself with the generation of renewable energy. In 2009, we applied for the Phase I SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) contract and received the $100,000 six-month award. Although not required, we decided that in addition to collecting scientific feasibility papers from university professors, we wanted to actually build a crude prototype. The prototype had LEDs, but did not contain solar cells, since it was an indoor project and was not designed to withstand the weather.
A substantial amount of work was required to engineer this prototype. We were blessed to have the help of enthusiastic volunteers.We completed our prototype in February 2010. It was a 12-foot by 12-foot panel. Due to its size, we realized it would be a nightmare to transport and to install (we later reduced the size for SR2). But the functionality worked well and showed the world the basic idea in a tangible way.
We also built a prototype stormwater redistribution system and a 3-foot by 3-foot crosswalk panel with load sensors to experiment with both of those technologies. Sensors determine when a weight (such as a pedestrian or some form of wildlife) is on its surface. The crosswalk panel would flash when a certain level of weight was detected. It also sent a signal to the panel, and the words “SLOW DOWN” would appear. This demonstrated the ability of the road panels to communicate with one another, along with any drivers traveling across their surfaces.The SR1 prototype allowed the world to visualize some of the possibilities of an intelligent road surface.
Many visitors came from all over the world to see SR1 in our shop. We enjoyed seeing the looks of surprise and enthusiasm when they saw it in person. Of course, everyone wanted to be photographed on it.
Increased media attention meant that more people were becoming aware of Solar Roadways®. SR was featured in such publications as Popular Science, Fast Company, The Daily Beast, Venture Beat, Wired, and Roger Ebert’s Journal. YERT made a short documentary about the development of this prototype. Click here to watch.
Three exciting events took place in 2010:
In April of 2010, shortly after completing the first prototype, Solar Roadways® was chosen as a finalist in the EETimes ACE awards. The category was Most Promising Renewable Energy. Although we lost to National Semiconductor, we just thought, “Wow, we lost to National Semiconductor!” Amazing, at such an early stage of our company’s development.
Another happy event for SR happened in 2010: the invitation for Scott to give a TEDx talk in Sacramento, CA. A TEDx talk can be stressful, the difficulty is in trying to deliver your message with an 18-minute time limit! Many will prepare for months trying to perfect their talk. The early days of our journey afforded no such luxuries. The TEDx crew had kindly arranged a variety of meetings for us in Sacramento and our days there were full. We finally found time to complete the outline for the talk at 3:00 a.m. the night before and woke up early for more meetings. Scott actually dozed off just before he was handed a microphone and asked to come on stage! Julie was praying that he would get some help from above as he delivered his emotional message, which ended with a standing ovation and lines of people waiting to talk to us. You can watch his TEDx talk is on our video page.
After completing our first USDOT contract, we were invited to apply for a Phase II contract, which we did. While we awaited word on our application, money became very tight. The life of an entrepreneur is filled with uncertainty. Help came from an unexpected source: General Electric. They announced their Ecomagination Contest. The prize for the entry which garnered the most popular votes was $50,000. We spent many hours each day answering questions on the contest website and began to move up in the standings. We still have copies of all of the comments, and just noticed this one:
“You have my vote and, if you were to go public, I would like to invest and become a shareholder.”
On October 7th, 2010 we were awarded the $50,000 award after receiving the most votes from among 3795 ideas submitted. We were flown to New York for a ceremony along with other winners. Winning the popular vote was an encouragement and that prize money kept SR moving forward.