Back in 2009, when Danny Kennedy was looking for office space for the fast-growing solar services company he had co-founded, his venture capital investors recommended setting up shop in one of the “Twitterville kinds of areas” south of Market Street.
There, social media and peer-to-peer pioneers like Foursquare, Yelp, Airbnb and, indeed, Twitter had created a technology zone where innovative ideas could fly free and cross-pollinate among young workers meeting casually over food and drink.
Instead - after looking at buildings he deemed “foggy and frumpy and cold and wet,” not to mention expensive - Kennedy ended up in an airy loft across the bay here at Jack London Square. In just four years, the company, Sungevity, has grown to 300 employees from 55 in its 11,000-square-foot space overlooking the Oakland Estuary, helping jump-start the area’s stalled revitalization.
Taking things a step further, Kennedy, a former environmental advocate, has developed an incubator-accelerator program called the SfunCube, to attract and nurture other solar startups.
“The whole point of the SfunCube is to bring in a whole bunch of solar companies, populate the whole square with a bunch of solar professionals and turn it into, like, a solar campus,” he said.
“If we succeed in our task,” he added, “we’ll have thousands of solar industry workers here - they’ll want to walk to work or cycle. They’ll become the population that helps make that happen. The whole thing will be this nice, synergistic sort of lift-all-boats kind of deal.”
The effects of a growing solar cluster on Jack London Square are already visible in the crowds of workers grabbing a bite at restaurants like Bocanova, a beer at the sharply slope-floored Heinold’s First and Last Chance, or a Gibraltar at the Blue Bottle coffee roasters up the street. But those developments are merely ancillary to a broader vision, Kennedy said.
The real aim is to create a place that inspires the kinds of “creative collisions” that allow for further innovation to speed adoption of solar energy, mainly by bringing its cost down. Companies that are offered space in the SfunCube must agree to pursue that goal, whether by developing more efficient technologies, say, or coming up with new ways of financing projects.
Finding cheaper ways to finance, permit and install solar energy systems is “just as important as technology - arguably now even more important,” said David Hochschild, the California energy commissioner in charge of environmental protection. “The entire Bay Area-Silicon Valley space has actually served as a larger campus for this kind of innovation. But doing it on a single site like this is actually pretty unique.”
Despite decades of city-sponsored redevelopment efforts that have come in fits and starts, Oakland has yet to emerge from the long shadow of its neighbor to the west, San Francisco, much like Brooklyn’s former relationship to Manhattan, a comparison those redeveloping the East Bay are quick to make.
Oakland is in the midst of recreating its own Brooklyn: the Brooklyn Basin, a $1.5-billion waterfront housing and commercial development planned near Lake Merritt. Like its New York counterpart, the area was once in a separate city called Brooklyn, subsumed by Oakland in the 1870s, officials said.
Even so, Oakland has a base of high-tech and green energy companies, including the solar thermal company BrightSource and the commercial installer Borrego Solar Systems. The sector has been developing over many years, said Steve Lautze, who oversees green business development for Oakland, originally anchored by recycling companies attracted by the city’s position as a portal to the Pacific for Northern California.
Oakland development officials are now focused on maximizing what Kennedy has started at Jack London Square, said Kelley Kahn, the city’s economic and workforce development director, who helped oversee the transformation of Mission Bay in San Francisco into a biotech center.
“Oakland even offers a lot more in terms of an urban experience than what we were building in Mission Bay,” she said, adding that there was potential to create a new sector in Oakland’s economy. Officials are trying to figure out, “how, across the board, can we really capture a bigger piece of this innovation economy.”
Officials with the city and executives at the SfunCube - perhaps mindful of criticisms that gentrification has made real estate in parts of New York’s Brooklyn more expensive than Manhattan - say they are trying to ensure that Oakland residents have access to whatever benefits come from the growth.
Toward that end, Kahn said, they are working to support or promote organizations like Hack the Hood and others that are dedicated to high-tech training and education programs while the SfunCube has an outpost of the California Center for Sustainable Energy, which runs jobs and youth education programs as well.
Kennedy, along with his Sungevity co-founders Andrew Birch, the chief executive, and Alec Guettel, a company director, began developing the incubator at something he calls the Solar Dojo, a collection of startups in Berkeley that included Mosaic, the crowdfunding platform. After moving operations to Jack London Square, he co-founded the program with Emily Kirsch, who had been pressing him to do so. As chief executive of the SfunCube, she now oversees a handful of companies that share its values, as she put it. They are offered space for nine months and encouraged to get their products out to market quickly.
“If it’s going to fail, we want to know as soon as possible - and they probably do, too, even if it’s their baby,” she said.
Those include BrightCurrent, which helps funnel residential solar customers to installation companies; Standard Microgrid, which is bringing solar systems combined with storage to underserved communities in Africa; BlocPower, which aims to aggregate nonprofit, small business and property owners into groups to buy lower-cost solar and energy efficiency products; and a company called What Up that is working on financial services software that would make solar leases more readily available to customers with less-than-stellar credit.
Through the SfunCube program, entrepreneurs get access to free legal and financial services, networking events and contacts and, of course, the capital they say has proved invaluable. Christopher Hornor, chief executive of Powerhive, which develops and finances solar microgrids, said he found important staff members at one of the program’s periodic hackathons - problem-solving jam sessions of a sort. Aside from that, they say, there is value simply in being around others dedicated to missions that at times seem impossible.
“When you’re an entrepreneur, there’s a period that you go through, which is like, ‘Wow, there’s another mountain to climb,’ and it’s really helpful to have this environment that you can just show up in,” he said. “Knowing that other people around you are in the same boat - that’s morale-boosting.”