By Julia Ferrante
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Craig Dwyer, Class of '10, was getting ready to study for the MCAT last winter when a friend told him about a business venture competition with a $5,000 grand prize. Dwyer was looking for a way to earn extra money, and figured it was worth a shot.
He and a fraternity brother, Eric Diamond, Class of '09, considered several sustainable business ideas before deciding on a solar energy sales and installation venture. Dwyer, a theater and anthropology double major, and Diamond, an accounting and economics double major, spent the next few weeks writing a business plan, focusing on government incentives as a selling point for solar energy systems.
Dwyer and Diamond got fourth place in the competition. They didn't take home any money, but their loss inspired them to pursue the idea further. Less than six months later, Eclipse Solar LLC is turning a profit with several residential and commercial clients in the greater Philadelphia area. The partners plan to eventually expand into product design and manufacturing of new, cutting edge photovoltaic cells.
"We went into the competition a little bit unprepared," Dwyer said. "We liked the renewable energy idea, and there were many pending government rebates and incentives, but we didn't have enough of the cold, hard facts on when they were coming into play.
"After the competition and a few timely moves by the government, we sat down and said, 'This could actually go somewhere.' We spent the entire summer working on it. In retrospect, it was a good thing we lost. If we had gotten money, we may have said, 'That was some nice work, but now I'm moving on with my life.'"
A different path
Dwyer's parents, a physician's assistant and a pharmaceutical company project director, were not enthusiastic about their son's plans to drop medical school for a solar business at first but have come around to the idea, he said.
"It's kind of like telling your parents you are giving up med school to start a lemonade stand," he said. "But we are fostering renewable energy. It's heading down a path to help the environment and to help people save money."
Dwyer and Diamond set out after the competition to find a private investor but couldn't find any takers. They decided next to go the bank route but came up empty-handed there, too.
"The bank branch managers coined the line, 'I'll tell you what, if this were three years ago...,'" Dwyer recalled.
The partners caught a break when Diamond, a National Guardsman, learned he was eligible for a low-interest loan of $25,000.
After securing the loan, Dwyer and Diamond started Eclipse Solar on a bare-bones budget. They also decided it was time to bring in another partner with an electrical engineering background. They contracted another Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brother, Drew Willey, who graduated with Diamond in May. Willey signed on with the solar company with financial help from his father to become an equal partner with Dwyer and Diamond.
"Basically, the three of us were starting from scratch trying to figure it out," Dwyer said.
Setting up shop
In May, the partners signed a lease on a 1,240-square-foot storefront in Dwyer's hometown, West Chester, Pa., and found an experienced installer to help with installations. Diamond and Willey work out of the storefront with help from Dwyer, who is finishing his last year at Bucknell. As part of his coursework, Dwyer is conducting an independent study on how to operate a company while still in college.
Eclipse Solar sells and installs solar electric panels, or photovoltaics, which convert sunlight to electrical power. They install the panels, which they buy from a distribution company, on roofs or in wide open spaces of property. The company has completed three installations and has four more commissioned. The partners also are developing designs for several potential commercial clients. One of the commercial clients is considering installing a solar canopy over its parking lot. The panels would have the dual effect of keeping cars cooler and showing the company's eco-friendliness, Dwyer said.
"These are systems that over their lifespan will pay for themselves," Dwyer said. "When you have solar energy on your house, you get renewable energy credits from utility companies. The utility companies are required to have a certain amount of these credits or they pay serious compliance fees."
Pennsylvania is offering a 30 percent rebate on solar systems through 2011, and federal rebates are scheduled to be available through 2016. By that time, the partners hope to have newer products to offer. They estimate it takes four to five years to get a return on a solar investment for homeowners and one to three years for commercial clients. The upfront costs are about $35,000.
Drawing on the dramatic
Dwyer's background as a theater major also has come in handy in closing sales with potential clients, he said.
"When we go to a meeting, when they throw questions at us, all of a sudden my improvisational skills kick in and I'm able to educate consumers on how solar energy can be beneficial for their situation," he said.
His experiences as an entrepreneur also have taught him to seize opportunity.
"For anyone who might be tentative to pursue an idea, they should take the chance, hands down." he said.
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