Article by Erika Clugston, The Beam
We spoke with PVilion CEO Colin Touhey about how the company designs are generating clean energy through fabric.
Imagine: A tote bag that charges your phone, a coffee cart that generates its own electricity, curtains that produce enough electricity to power the lighting in an entire building. But these are not mere figments of the imagination — these are actual products from NYC-based startup Pvilion, which is rethinking the ways that fabric and solar can power the future.
n today’s day and age, energy demands are monumental and the need for creative energy solutions is greater than ever. Energy access differentiates between the haves and have-nots, and according to the United Nations, approximately 1.1 billion people have no access to electricity altogether, which cuts them off from income-generating opportunities, basic healthcare, and education. While this statistic is incredibly daunting, the only way forward is by rethinking the ways that we can make power generation easier and more sustainable. Pvilion is doing just that.
Fabric is used universally to construct not only clothes, but tents and other everyday designs — but what if it could also be used as an opportunity to generate sustainable power? Such is the concept for Pvilion. With creativity and a passion for renewable energy, the company is leading the way forward with their innovative designs. We talk with CEO Colin Touhey about the company’s mission for re-imagining the possibilities for fabric structures.
Where did the concept for Pvilion originate? What was the inspiration that got you going?
Pvilion started with a passion for renewable energy generation and a passion for lightweight fabric structures. We started out building solar-powered tents for the military and realized that there were far greater applications: architecture, consumer products, event tents, and humanitarian aid. There are many places where you need shelter and power, and we’ve realized that the combination of the two is what inspires us.
From fashion to architecture, you’re not only exploring different disciplines but also challenging how we think about solar power. Can you talk a little bit about the possibilities you see for Pvilion?
Well, we see fabric as a platform for energy generation. Any surface that gets hit by the sun can produce electricity, so our thesis is such. Eventually, we will become a material company, developing elements that are integrated into finished products by others. For the time being, we are a turnkey operation for design, engineering, manufacturing, and sales. The possibilities are endless, but moving to a roll-based model will allow us to grow significantly. That is, we sell you a few yards of fabric and you can do whatever you want with it: make a t-shirt, cover your boat, shade your backyard, etc.
What are some examples of products that have been especially fun to design or that customers have been really excited about?
The Tommy Hilfiger clutch is amazing. We use the texture of leather to build the solar piece, and a USB port is inside to charge mobile devices. It’s been a great product, and working with a large brand like Tommy is a great learning experience for us.
What has the reception been like so far?
We’ve had positive feedback and been successful in a number of markets. The question remains: what is the most appropriate use for our technology that is in a scalable and interesting market? Folks are really excited about the idea, and we’ve made tons of progress, but there is still room for growth in each of our market areas.
How do you see the economy developing around this kind of design and technology?
I think about it more as “value-added” rather than “returns-based.” No one is calculating the amount of energy they use to charge their cell phone, right? But, they are willing to pay a certain amount of money to charge their cell phone wherever they are. So, the economy is not the solar economy, but the service and experience economy. We are selling a service — charging some electronics — it is just packaged as a product for the time being.
What have been the most frustrating challenges to your work so far?
Each product category requires a new way of thinking. That’s fun and intellectually stimulating, but there are reasons that you don’t want to build something custom for every one of your customers! The frustration comes when customers want to tweak our existing products — and of course we say yes!!
What are your biggest opportunities for growth?
Our two main focuses are consumer products and industrial buildings. Both are very different categories, but in fact, they’re similar in these ways:
1. We don’t manufacture either! So, we are selling our materials to end product manufacturers who then package and sell to the customer.
2. You need electricity everywhere! Whether that’s charging your phone or powering lighting and ventilation for a farm building, there is a huge need for power.
Can you expand on some of the humanitarian aid work that Pvilion is doing?
To be honest, our technology isn’t at the price point of humanitarian aid shelters yet. That being said, mobile USB charging is a very important piece of the infrastructure puzzle in the developing world, and that interests us. Without creating the infrastructure of phone lines in every home, mobile networks have growth exponentially. The same is true with power, where decentralized distributed power is going to skip over utility lines reaching every home.
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