An Interview with David Bergeron, Founder of SunDanzer
Maurice Kent, Program & Investment Officer, Scaling Off-Grid Energy
In late January, Scaling Off-Grid Energy Grand Challenge for Development (SOGE) announced the first two innovation prize award winners under the 2016-17 Global LEAP Awards Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition — a competition held by SOGE, Power Africa, the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), and Global LEAP. The two awards went to the refrigerators that demonstrated market-leading advancement in energy efficiency and overall value to the customer.
SOGE and DFID designed these incentives to encourage innovation to address a gap in technology: as more customers obtain larger solar home systems (SHS), the range of available, affordable, and appropriate consumer and productive use appliances didn’t yet include refrigerators. We were extremely excited about the results of the competition. SunDanzer, a US-based company, won both innovation awards with two different refrigerator models: SunDanzer’s DCR50 and DCR165 won for Overall Value and Energy Efficiency, respectively.
David Bergeron, the Founder and CEO of SunDanzer, attended the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association’s (GOGLA) Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo in Hong Kong for the announcement. I had the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss the competition; the role the incentives played in SunDanzer’s participation, design, and development process; and where he sees the market for refrigerators like his company’s going forward. Our discussion follows:
Maurice Kent, SOGE: David, could you tell me more about why you applied to the Global LEAP competition? What were you hoping to get out of it?
David Bergeron, SunDanzer: The incentives played a major factor in our decision to apply and improve our devices. Beyond the monetary value, we sought increased exposure for our devices, both to the public and directly to potential buyers. We have been interested in the off-grid household and small business market for a long time, and the Global LEAP Awards presented a great opportunity to connect with major players in that market.
MK: Has SunDanzer participated in a competition like this before, with rigorous lab-testing and follow-on results-based finance opportunities?
DB: No, nothing quite like this, although we’ve received grants and awards from various organizations, including USAID’s Powering Agriculture in the past.
MK: I understand that you were previously designing high-efficiency products for use by the World Health Organization and not for small micro-enterprise or domestic use, like many of the customers that would use a Global LEAP award-winning device. Can you tell me more about how the prize changed your research and development or business plans?
DB: We’ve been selling household, commercial, medical, and military solar fridges for almost 20 years, but never reached the price point to make the product successful in the small solar home system market. The prize signaled interest from this market in having devices at this price point, so we decided to try to meet that call. With this award and the additional exposure, I hope to reach the balance of price and energy efficiency necessary to sell products into the SHS market. It was great to meet with some of the major SHS retailers at the GOGLA event, including Mobisol, BBOXX, Off-Grid Electric, Simusolar, Solaris Off-Grid and Omnivoltaic.
MK: What are your next steps for the (award-winning) DCR50 and DCR165 models? Any field tests or additional design tweaks?
DB: I need to work on reducing the cost and getting the product even further into the market. I also need to work on mitigating the [value-added tax] and duties in countries where SHS retailers are working. As it stands, we can sell the DCR165 for under $500/unit and the DCR50 for under $400 in container-level volumes. For purchases over 1,000 units, we can get those price-points below $400 and $325, respectively. I’d like to get those below $225 for both devices, and we’re working with our suppliers to find ways to do so.
MK: How are the DCR50 and DCR165, and SunDanzer’s products as a whole, different than others on the market?
DB: We use a number of key components that create market-leading efficiency, including a zero-maintenance DC compressor and a patented low-frost system to reduce frost and moisture build up.
MK: Do you envision continuing to grow a low-cost, high-efficiency product line for use by low-income, rural, off-grid households around the world?
DB: Definitely. That has been the holy grail of solar fridges for decades, and the quality of energy provision from things like solar home systems is converging with improvements in technologies like ours. We definitely see this as a growth market for us.
MK: Lastly, do you envision any applications for the DCR50 or DCR165 for customers living in places like the U.S.? – for camping or those who want to move off-grid?
DB: Yes, we sell some of our devices to those customers now, but the redesigns from this competition should expand our ability to address domestic markets as well.
Thanks for following this conversation! We here at SOGE feel that SunDanzer’s journey and participation in Global LEAP represents the type of public-private interaction we sought to create when we set the incentive awards on top of the existing Global LEAP infrastructure. As USAID has seen across many of the sectors in which we work, public prizes can push the private sector to drastically improve technology performance, enter new markets, and build collaborations with other entities that they may not have otherwise pursued.