This week, I talked with Blake Barthelmess, the CEO of SolarX Works. SolarX Works is bringing practical solar solutions to the world in an effort to make people’s lives better. SolarX Works was founded in 2015 and is currently field testing its prototype solutions with plans to ramp manufacturing in the near future. The company is currently working to secure industrial partners to broaden field test efforts.
As SolarX Works is focused on the cold chain, this conversation discusses areas to reduce organic waste along the supply chain, from the producer to the market.
Can you describe what your company does and the impact?
Our focus is on three things within the context of the food chain, specifically the cold chain: first mile, micro-distribution, and last mile.
First mile refers to the producer. The problem we are focusing on here is that in some parts of the world, up to 50% of the post-harvest is thrown away because there’s not an efficient means or infrastructure to get produce to the market — there’s no good method of cooling. Refrigeration is the key to preserving the quality of the integrity of the harvest. Within the domestic market, in field pre-cooling of produce yields higher quality, lower operating costs, and improved shelf-life.
The next focus area is micro-distribution. As shown by the current circumstances, supply chains have some weaknesses. There are inefficiencies in the supply chains which have led to shortages. To fix this problem, we are focused on enhancing the regional supply chain.
The third area of focus is last mile. Grocery stores operate on low margins, so anything you can do to offset costs helps. Refrigeration is very energy intensive, but solar can help offset that. Our solution is a cooling system that’s solar driven.
We started this business with the focus on the international concern to be able to improve the economic condition for producers, who is struggling with one of the following problems: water, access to available power, access to available cooling, and access to capital (microloans and money).
What is the current ecosystem/market landscape and who are the main players?
Right now, there are several international organizations and national organizations like the Millennium Challenge Corporation or USAID that are taking a look at cold chain infrastructure (going from pre-cooling in the field to a frozen warehouse that has refrigeration or freezing it back to the market, and investing to help build that infrastructure).
I see it as that we’re all part of the same kind of ecosystem trying to come up with a solution.
When we did our first proof of concept, we did exactly what others in the space did. We converted a refrigeration unit to run on solar. However, this was not the end goal because this can get expensive. We decided to be space agnostic, the goal is to convert any space into refrigeration.
We have patents around the physical design of the cooling system. Our technology takes 30 minutes to go from the back of a truck to blowing cold air.
Other companies are very specific and are complementary to us. To that point, there is potential to partner with others in the space such that SolarX Works focuses on the cooling piece, and we could license our technology.
What are the current trends in the sector? What does the future look like?
There is an estimated 70% of growth in required food supply globally over the next 20 years or so. At that rate, then we have to be able to distribute the food appropriately.
There’s going to be strain put on supply chains regardless of industry. You will see a shift away from monolithic cold storage buildings or warehouse distribution channels and more into micro-distribution channels on the regional level.
The greatest opportunity for impact to society is in nations that are developing. With solutions like SolarX Works, the price has to be adjusted so that international farmers, especially in Africa, can afford to leverage these kinds of solutions, where the infrastructure doesn’t exist. If we can deliver these kinds of solutions across thousands of villages, then things start to look different.
The return on an investment for smaller exports makes sense domestically. If producers can bring more produce to market, and the produce retains its integrity at market longer, producers can reduce their waste and improve their yield.
Solutions that are consumer facing are great but are not enough on their own. There needs to be a bigger push for innovation in cold chain and supply chain. If farmers can reduce harvest loss and get more produce to markets, margins will grow along the distribution channels. This in combination with consumer facing solutions will have great impact in reducing waste, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.