Solar Monkey, the startup company from Delft that gave a huge boost to the Dutch solar PV market, is about to conquer Europe – from their new head office in The Hague. “In about five years we want to be world market leader in solar PV software,” says co-founder Jan Pieter Versluijs in an exclusive interview.
The choice almost fell on Rotterdam. But Solar Monkey in the end decided on moving to The Hague.
The company, which in a very short time managed to shake up the Dutch market for design and installation software of solar PV systems, had outgrown its offices at Yes!Delft, the incubator for tech startups affiliated with the Technical University (TU) of Delft. Founded in 2016 by two TU Delft graduates, Jan Pieter Versluijs and Mels van Hoolwerff, Solar Monkey quickly metamorphosed from startup into scale-up, with 29 full-time employees and revenues of over €1 million.
That made a move to new offices necessary. Yes!Delft – chosen in 2018 as the second-best university-affiliated tech startup incubator in the world – caters to companies that are still in their infancy. “We were not kicked out,” says Versluijs, “but it is customary that you make room for other startups at a certain point.”
After some soul-searching, Solar Monkey decided to set up shop in The Hague Tech, a smart office hub for young tech companies right next to the Laan van NOI train station. That choice was not predetermined. ‘We did hesitate,” says Versluijs. “Rotterdam and Amsterdam also had a lot of attractions.”
But the excellent location and connections of The Hague Tech, a co-working hub for tech companies and free-lancers, won the day. “A co-working hub offers a lot of advantages to a company like Solar Monkey,” says Versluijs. “You inspire each other, learn from each other, there are networking events. All that is important for us.” Yes!Delft can serve as a model, according to Versluijs. “They have good advisors – legal experts, coaches. You get a lot of free advice. That’s very helpful to startups.”
The fact that there are a lot of energy companies in The Hague was not a major factor in Solar Monkey’s decision, says Versluijs. “We see ourselves more as tech company than energy company. The presence of other tech companies is more important to us than that of other energy companies.”
He does add, though, that he is in touch with Shell, Europe’s largest energy company, whose head offices are also in The Hague. Shell has acquired a string of startup renewable energy companies in recent years as the oil and gas giant is looking to gradually transform itself into a “new energy” company. According to Versluijs, “Shell is interested in our technology”, although he adds that does not mean an acquisition is in the cards.
The idea behind Solar Monkey was born in 2015. Versluijs and his friend from university Van Hoolwerff were convinced that the installation of solar panels could be made much more efficient. Installers have to personally visit potential clients and inspect their roofs before they can make an offer. A time-consuming process, and offers do not always lead to business. Wouldn’t it be great if they could do this from behind their desk?
The two young entrepreneurs succeed in collecting data from all roofs in the Netherlands. They then develop a smart computer program which lets solar PV installers prepare a tailor-made offer for every building in a matter of minutes. The product is a big hit. Already some 300 installers are working with Solar Monkey software in the Netherlands, producing 350,000 offers on an annual basis. A number that is still growing. “Our service is a no-brainer for installers,” says Versluijs. “They can do in a few minutes what used to take them half a day.”
The gain is not only in the time it takes to make an offer, but also in its quality, says Versluijs. The program calculates what is the best design for any particular roof. What is more: it also makes it possible to monitor the performance of the panels. This is an additional service that Solar Monkey lets installers offer their customers under the name of “Solar Guarantee”.
Versluijs is convinced that the innovative services of Solar Monkey have greatly boosted the Dutch solar PV market. “The market has grown three-fold in just a few years. That’s in part thanks to the technological progress we brought to it.”
Solar Monkey is now ready for the next step: Europe awaits. The company is already active in Belgium and Spain, both “markets with high growth potential in which a lot of technological progress is still possible”.
To acquire the data they need, Solar Monkey buys aerial photos from Google or, even better, local providers. In Spain it is a bit more difficult than in the Netherlands or Belgium to get height data directly, says Versluijs, but the company’s software developers manage to put together 3D data anyway from overlapping aerial photographs. “In time we want to cover the entire country.”
And this is only the beginning, as far as Versluijs and his partner are concerned. “We want to become global market leader in our field. That is the great thing about software: it works across borders. We can use our knowledge everywhere in the world.”
Versluijs acknowledges that in a high-growth market like solar power there will always be competition. But he is convinced Solar Monkey is ahead of the pack. “Our product strategy is based on three elements. First we have developed a unique method of incorporating 3D data in our system. Secondly, we have an extremely user-friendly package. All complexity is hidden under the hood. Anyone can work with the program in no time. And thirdly with our monitoring service we have a unique offer that captures a large part of the value chain.”
Although Solar Monkey could start developing other products, the company wants to keep its focus on its existing offers. “We always put our customers first, not our product. We are continually looking at what our customers need. That’s why we don’t want to broaden our services at this stage.”
To conquer the world Solar Monkey will need new funding. The company collected €1 million in March 2019. One of the investors was Innovation Quarter, a regional economic development agency for the Province of Zuid-Holland to which The Hague belongs. This money enabled the company to scale up to its present size. In 2020 it is looking for a similar amount to fund its foreign expansion.
Will the Solar Monkeys then have to find new offices again? And will they stay in The Hague? Versluijs: “Not unlikely. The Hague is a great place to live. Especially because it’s on the sea. I love wind surfing and kiting.”