Engineering Success with Colin Touhey of Pvilion

Pvilion of Brooklyn designs and manufactures flexible photovoltaic (PV) structures and products. Examples include deployable solar tents for the U.S. military, Tommy Hilfiger solar clothing, a solar fabric carport at Google, and fold-up solar chargers. In February 2019, researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) were awarded a Manufacturing Grant from FuzeHub’s Jeff Lawrence Manufacturing Innovation Fund to help Pvilion automate its solar fabric manufacturing process.

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Colin Touhey, Pvilion’s co-founder and CEO, recently caught up with FuzeHub in a NYS Manufacturing Now podcast. Touhey’s voice may be familiar to attendees at last year’s New York State Innovation Summit (part of the NYSTAR Annual Meeting), where he participated in a panel discussion at the “Navigating Start-Up Capital” session. An electrical engineer specializing in renewable energy technology, Touhey also spoke at a NYSTAR Defense Diversification workshop that was powered by FuzeHub in August 2018.

Listen to FuzeHub’s podcast with Pvilion to learn more about the rise of this dynamic company. In addition to telling Pvilion’s story, Touhey shares advice for startups and addresses challenges that manufacturers face. He also describes Pvilion’s successes and explains how his company has benefitted by working with NYS-funded assets. Click play below to listen to FuzeHub’s interview with Pvilion’s Colin Touhey.


A bright future: fabrics that generate electricity

Pvilion’s Colin Touhey is working to forge strategic partnerships to integrate photovoltaic technology into all kinds of fabric products.

Specialty Fabrics Review  |  Jill C. Lafferty  |  July 2019

Pvilion is the 10-year-old partnership between Touhey, an electrical engineer, and fabric structure industry veterans Todd Dalland and Robert Lerner, AIA. Dalland is a pioneering designer and inventor in the field of lightweight structures and a recipient of the Bruce Wodetzki Award—the tent rental industry’s highest honor. Lerner has led new technology development programs involving lightweight, deployable structures for NASA, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. The three connected when Dalland and Lerner were working on integrating photovoltaic cells with fabric for the U.S. Department of Defense. 

“Todd and Robert had started FTL Solar and were making flexible PV fabric products and structures for military, tent rental and car park projects. Joining them as a summer intern when I was in college was an exciting opportunity for me,” Touhey says. With an eye toward expanding into architectural, commercial and consumer markets, the three became partners and reformatted the business as Pvilion in 2011. 

Supply and demand

What Pvilion does is simple in theory—and complicated in reality, Touhey says. “We integrate solar cells with fabric, and we build fabric products that generate electricity,” he says. “Effectively, any surface, any fabric that is getting hit by the sun, can be a fabric that generates electricity.”

While it may seem futuristic to the general public, the Pvilion team says the technology is proven in the field. Dalland and Lerner worked on the first photovoltaic tent more than 20 years ago, which led to research and development funding from the U.S. Army. That helped show the world that it can be done, Lerner says.

“You need to be patient when you are developing new technology and trying to get it out into the market and sell something to people who have never seen it before. A lot of people just don’t want to be first one to do anything,” Lerner says. “I’ve always said we are a little bit ahead of our time; we are usually five years ahead, which is better than being 20 years ahead of your time. We know what technologies are coming, and we are leaders in bringing new technologies to market.”

And there’s no doubt about the market demand for mobile energy generation—or that fabric has the potential to meet that demand. Take the global proliferation of the mobile phone. Technology conglomerate Cisco predicts that by 2020, more people will have a mobile phone than will have electricity in their homes, with the Middle East and Africa expected to have the highest growth rate in mobile data usage. 

“Every person in the world has a phone that needs to be charged,” Touhey says. “And every person in the world has access to fabric. They might be in a tent, they might have an awning, they are definitely wearing clothes. The access to phones has driven the requirement for mobile power.”

Market integration

Pvilion’s strategy has been to build turnkey products—a carport for electric cars, a canopy for a mobile coffee cart, a solar-powered pedestrian bridge, and so on. But recently, the company has begun seeking out partners that are the best in their market segment, with the goal of integrating flexible PV technology into a variety of existing end products.

“If we want to launch an event tent, we’re going to be working with the best and brightest event tent manufacturer to integrate our technology into their supply chain,” Touhey says. “We feel very confident in our technology and our ability to take our technology to different markets with strategic partners.”

One market application Touhey would like to pursue—for which the right partner or opportunity has yet to come along—is large industrial buildings that can’t support the weight of traditional solar panels but would benefit from energy generation and solar tax incentives.

“We’ve started to have preliminary conversations with potential partners,
and we are very excited about that idea,” he says. “We’re pursuing the large-scale roll-out of the technology on our own, with partners, and with the help of grants from New York State.”

While a strategy of finding partners has benefits—such as funding and not reinventing established products and processes—this approach also comes with risks.

“It has been a challenge to share what we do while protecting it at the same time, even with patents and intellectual property protections,” Touhey says. “In the last year, almost 18 months, we’ve just said, ‘Look, in order to make an omelet, you’ve got to break some eggs,’ and we’ve got to be showing this to partners who can scale this in ways that we couldn’t even imagine.”

Beyond specific markets, Pvilion is focused on developing manufacturing processes that are more dependent on robotics and less on labor, thereby reducing costs and increasing volume. The technology isn’t at the commoditization point—yet—but Touhey envisions that with wider adoption, Pvilion will be known as “the technology in an everyday product,” along the lines of brands like Gore and Intel.

Dalland predicts that manufacturers in all IFAI market segments will eventually adopt photovoltaic technology, creating products that serve their original function while also generating electricity. 

“Fabric-based product makers will become electricity business experts,” Dalland says. “For me, there is nothing more beautiful than a flexible solar fabric product that makes electricity and money from day one.”

New ideas

While there is some overlap in the responsibilities of the three partners, Touhey is the most focused on big-picture strategy, forging partnerships and reaching new customers. The challenges Pvilion faces are the same challenges faced by any project-based small business, he says.

“It’s really hard to wait for customers. You have to really fill your pipeline and be ready for a year out or two years out because there are dry spells, and you have to be able to weather that,” he says. “We get a lot of projects where we get paid as we complete them. Well, you’ve got to have cash up front to build it. That’s always a challenge for any small business that’s growing—how much to invest in other people’s projects, and how much to rely on customers to be funding you.”

But being a small and nimble company committed to a technology rather than a specific market means that the Pvilion can make decisions quickly, entering a new market and developing a new product in a matter of weeks or months, he says. 

“Running a business is exciting,” Touhey says. “You are constantly on the edge. It’s up and it’s down; there are new innovations. We are constantly coming up with new ideas. Every day we have a new idea about how to make our product better. It’s rewarding to take the ideas in your head to a sketch on paper into a concept that becomes a reality in the field.” 

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The Race to Energy Independence One Device at a Time

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In this episode of The IoClothes Podcast, we speak with Colin Touhey, CEO of pvilion. Energy independence isn’t just a geo-political challenge. We feel the pain with each and every device that “cuts the cord” from the wall. It’s inevitable our smart phones will be at 5% battery right when need to use the GPS or make an important call. Go figure. What if we didn’t have to worry about that? What if our devices became energy independent by harvesting the energy around us? pvilion is offer solutions that do just that through solar panel integrated into textiles.

This show we talk to him about why they chosen to use textiles as a base material for their solar panels, what they’ve learn from collaborations with companies like Tommy Hilfiger and the importance of business model evolution when thinking about incorporating technology into well-established industries.


3 Advanced Photovoltaic Membrane Systems for Solar Applications

Building-integrated photovoltaic systems are becoming increasingly popular as either the main or supplementary source of power in all types of building projects. Integrating flexible photovoltaic solar panels with fiber roofing systems is a fairly new innovation, led by companies like Pvilion, a designer and manufacturer of flexible photovoltaic solar structures and products.

Advanced Technology

As technology has improved, flexible photovoltaic panels can now be part of fully integrated photovoltaic membrane structures. These systems have undergone decades of research, development and testing to ensure viability and demonstrate lasting functionality. Solar Integrated Membrane Structure.

Having demonstrated compliance with the International Electrical Code (IEC) and United Labs (UL), the three projects shown have all been approved by the local building departments. 

Photovoltaic Membrane Systems Continue Evolving

Very few companies specialize in this technology as it takes a significant effort in research, development and testing to demonstrate  compatibility and efficacy of the solar fabric integration under environmental and structural conditions . Pvilion began working with Shelter-Rite in 2014. Pvilion required a durable and strong fabric that was suitable for a variety of applications and technical needs.

As solar fabric membranes continue to advance, it has led to numerous innovations such as the world’s first tensile structure house that meets the “Passivhaus” energy standard, the most stringent energy standard in the world. This project was designed by students at Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, and Erfurt University as part of an international Solar Decathlon competition. 

This project achieved a number of “firsts,” such as proprietary techniques and processes to allow Pvilion solar membranes to be installed as a second skin over a primary roof membrane. This technology could fit or retro-fit photovoltaic skins onto new or pre-existing membrane roofs, allowing the second photovoltaic skin to be installed and maintained separately from the main skin.

Another project, a solar parking structure at Google’s Mountain View campus, covers electric vehicle parking spaces and helps charge the cars below. Such structures have many advantages, including simple installation thanks to factory prefabrication, and ease of relocation.    

This technology translates well to larger jobs, such as the canopy over the Capital Cascades Connector Bridge in Tallahassee, Florida. The canopy adds a key design element, and the integrated solar array generates enough power to offset the power used for the bridge lighting. 

Proven Performance

Advanced photovoltaic membranes have been working well in a variety of environments and applications for several years. The Capital Cascades Connector Bridge canopy has withstood one hurricane and one tropical storm in two seasons with no sign of degradation. The Techstyle Haus has been in use since the summer of 2014, having been installed, disassembled, and relocated three times.

As flexible solar modules continue to improve, this technology will become even more efficient and cost-effective. It is an outstanding option wherever membrane structures are used, such as athletic facilities, architectural features, parking structures and much more.

Robert Lerner from Pvilion Technologies contributed to this blog post.

You can read online article here


Colin Touhey, Pvilion CEO, presents at Smart Fabrics Summit 2018

Our CEO, Colin Touhey, presented at this year’s Smart Fabrics Summit in Washington, DC. His presentation titled: Wired Skins: An Exploration into Solar Powered Fabric. The introduction of solar-powered fabrics allows underutilized real estate, on the body and in the world, to increase functionality and add value to organizations, individuals, and governments.

Presentation HERE


Global Energy Leaders Podcast; Unique Energy Solutions

Pvilion CEO, Colin Touhey, Forbes 30 Under 30 Energy, was recently interviewed by Global Energy Media to share his insights into fabric solar technology and the growth of solar powered consumer products. See below for interview.

On today’s episode, Colin Touhey, CEO of Pvilion visits with The Global Energy Leaders Podcast to discuss what’s beyond solar and how we should be focusing on thinking outside of the box when it comes to implementing solar into our everyday lives.



Capital Cascade Connector Bridge

Pvilion collaborated with Figg Bridge Engineers to design, fabricate, and install the first solar-powered pedestrian bridge in the world.

The bridge was completed in early June, and now connects the Cascade Park and Capital Trail in Tallahassee, Florida. As a landmark, the solar bridge is at the forefront of Tallahassee’s economic growth. The bridge was engineered to serve a critical function beautifully and sustainably.

Pvilion and Figg partnered to engineer state-of-the art infrastructure; Pvilion designed the solar canopy to harvest solar energy and light Cascades Park, and Figg designed the bridge. The canopy was manufactured in Pvilion’s Brooklyn studio.