August 27th, 2010

From Software to Cleantech: Interview with Paul Berberian CEO of ZettaSun

Entrepreneurship -

zettasunThis week’s post is an interview with Paul Berberian,  a successful investor in Boulder, Colorado. He is the President and CEO of ZetaSun, Inc., a concentrating solar business. How many tech/software people do you meet who are also changing the world with clean tech businesses as well? Well, maybe more than you think. Paul is cross-applying his industry expertise in exciting ways into the Clean Tech space. You can follow Paul’s business ventures and high altitude aviation adventures at his blog:

Tell us a bit about your business:

*Zettasun, Inc. is building a new kind of solar panel designed for commercial rooftops.  We use our unique optical and mechanical designs to build a high-concentrating photovoltaic panel that can track  and concentrate the sun over 500 times without external devices.

How is your proprietary technology setting you apart from everyone else in the solar industry?

*The Zettasun solar panel is unique – it behaves like a silicon flat panel but it isn’t.  Our panel uses the most advanced PV solar cells in existence that are twice as efficient as silicon cells and are continuing to improve every month.  But, in order to use these exotic solar cells, the sun light has to be concentrated onto the cells (CPV) and this is what makes Zettasun stand out from the competition.  We are able to follow the sun across the sky and concentrate the sun without making the panel move.  Other CPV companies (SolFocus, Amonix and others) use large 2-axis trackers that move large arrays of panels to point toward the sun.  While this is a solution for a large utility field, it is not a solution for everyone.  The Zettasun panel will work anywhere.

How long have you lived in Boulder, Colorado?
16 years

Why are you passionate about renewables and clean tech?
Not many businesses you can start that have the opportunity to impact the whole of humanity.

What is your background pertaining to renewable energy and clean tech?

None – I’m a transplant from the tech/internet/telecom industry – I like to build teams and focus them on a common goal.  I think have a good ability to understand technology and translate it into something everyone can understand.

How does the capital investment scene compare to other tech and web startup funding scenes in Boulder?

Impossible.  No matter what you read in the popular press – clean tech funding is scare for startups.  There are so many ideas and each one typically requires a lot of capital.  After the boom in clean tech investing in 2005-2008 – investors are more cautious and tired.  On top of that there aren’t a lot of exits – esp. for technology companies so every business needs to be taken to wild commercial success before an exit – so the risk profile is much higher for clean tech.  In web companies companies can get going with a modest amount of capital and have varying degrees of success and many more opportunities for an exit or a sale.

What and when was the tipping point where you recall Boulder becoming a hub of renewable energy and clean tech?

I think it always has been a center for clean tech – the tipping point was when the world noticed all the talent in the area from CU, CSU and the NREL to all the other labs in town.  Lots of talent has always been in CO.

What are some key things you’ve learned from investing in both clean tech and web startups? Key differences?

I did a blog post on it – kind funny but oddly true:

It has been 6 weeks since I started at Zettasun (fka DecaSun – as promised we changed the name). Here are some of my observations about the differences between the Cleantech industry as compared to the Tech space.
1.    The JQ (joker quotient) is higher than tech. The world is full of jokers. It seems when it comes to saving the planet they all tend to flock to this industry.
2.    Business skills are optional in Cleantech.
3.    If you have a PhD – you can raise money. You can raise lots more money if you come from Stanford or MIT.
4.    Having a practical idea is of seemingly little value. Using materials in your products that come from meteors seems to make total sense.
5.    Boiling the ocean is possible – you just need enough parabolic mirrors and a billion dollars – then you can run a giant steam generator.
6.    The government is willing to help you build your business – so long as you don’t need their help – otherwise they won’t help you.
7.    We have national labs to evaluate our ideas – unfortunately they don’t have the “this makes sense” test.
8.    We have a Grid. Tech has the Internet. In Tech the Internet grew and became better as the market expanded – in Cleantech we’re jamming our electrons into someone else’s old and decrepit network causing all kinds of problems. It’s like your cousin backing up a Uhaul to come live with you – he’s family so you can’t say no, but you really don’t want all his shit in your house.
9.    Cleantech products weigh more than Tech products.
10.    We don’t have to deal with language translations – our stuff works everywhere.

*Taken from ZetaSun website at Paul’s reference

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James Moreau

About James Moreau

JR Moreau hails from Worcester, Massachusetts and is current residing in Boulder, Colorado working as a freelance brand and community building consultant for clean tech and emerging tech companies. Particularly interested in renewable energy and carbon sequestration, JR has done research for several studies conducted on innovative emerging technology in The Boston Indicators Project. He also blogs on personal, professional and societal development on his blog at No so Literal . He can be reached at james.r.moreau [at] gmail [dot] com

  • Chris Williams


    Great interview, I loved the top 10 reasons between the difference between cleantech and web investing. I hope that more people like Paul pass over from the web side to the cleantech side, I think there’s a lot we can learn from that industry in terms of collaborating and rapid development.