Destiny or a series of fortunate events?
Christopher’s journey to being CEO of a ground-breaking company worth over $4 billion sounds like it was all planned out. Each formative event in his life led to the next venture. But, he assures us, there was no grand plan at the time. Like many entrepreneurs, he got where he is today by having the passion and resolve to seize the opportunities that came to him.
That story, as Christopher remembers it, begins at age ten.
I had a friend in primary school whose dad taught him a bit of programming. All of us at the time were obsessed with computer games and I thought it would be amazing if I could make a game. Through him, I learned it was possible.
Despite his young age, Christopher and his father signed up for an adult evening class in computer programming. Coding was the perfect hobby – it was a creative outlet that demanded a scientific approach to solving problems, and it was something that didn’t need specialist equipment, only access to a computer.
Jumping forward a few years, the MSc Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London was the next big life event on Christopher’s path to success. His father is from the UK so he was keen to study in the country. London in particular seemed exciting and full of possibilities. Electronic engineering at Imperial was the ideal choice.
Being surrounded by bright, like-minded students, Christopher was soon inspired to start applying his new engineering expertise to some pressing challenges outside the classroom. He and some friends from the course founded e.quinox, focusing on providing electricity to people without it.
The group knew that more than one billion people around the world had no regular access to electricity. As engineering students, they saw this not only as a tragedy, but as a problem to be solved. So, with financial backing from the department for their first project, they set off for Rwanda to identify the problems people were facing and to come up with a solution.
Of course, solar was the best option. In Christopher’s time with the group, they completed projects in four villages, electrifying 600 homes.
e.quinox was a formative experience. The projects gave Christopher a deep insight into the practical, installation side of energy projects, and showed him how engineering can impact people’s lives on a very tangible level.
When engineering meets the real world
While engineering is a real passion, the e.quinox projects showed Christopher that his main interest is that intersection where engineering meets people. So, after graduating from Imperial, Christopher went on to do an MBA at Stanford in 2011. It was there that he met fellow student Samuel Adeyemo who was very interested in Christopher’s previous work on energy projects in Africa.
Sam pointed out that you don’t have to go far outside a major city in a country like Kenya for energy access to be an issue. The two students launched a solar business together, with a boarding school in Nairobi as their first client. The project was a complete success – the installation went well, the school had no more power cuts and they saved on energy bills.
Other people started reaching out to ask if something similar could work for them. But solar is so specific to each project that it’s impossible to give a simple answer.
How much energy does the building consume? And when? What does the roof structure look like? What orientation is it? Are there trees casting shade, or a mountain range that could impact production at a certain time of day? How are you going to finance it – cash, PPA, lease? Making sense of the project is complicated and bespoke to each site. If we wanted to do hundreds of these one day, we needed a scalable process.
There are so many variables involved that scaling their business without sophisticated software tools to support them seemed an insurmountable challenge.
However, after looking around, they realised those tools didn’t exist. The renewable energy industry was still in its early days. No one had built that tooling yet. Knowing that solar was projected to become massive, Christopher and Sam put their installation business on hold and focused purely on the software that will help the world transition to a clean energy future.
Aurora prepares for the solar boom
In the early days of their company, Aurora Solar, Christopher and Samuel brought on a software developer and an adviser with experience in the solar industry. They had some startup funding from Stanford and an initial seed round raised $925,000. Renewables were not a hot thing – a lot of investors were intrigued but not willing to commit. However, the market responded.
It’s funny that starting a business is actually quite anti-climactic. You go to a lawyer, sign some papers, and you have a business. But of course, there’s much more to it than that.
Clients were really receptive and kept buying the product. The team kept bootstrapping the business – selling some licenses, hiring more staff, selling some more licenses.
Christopher recalls a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
The business felt a lot like that, just in reverse. They grew slowly but steadily over a number of years, knowing that there would be an inflection point for solar down the line – and now, in the last few years, the world has caught up to the need for renewable energy.
Christopher likes to imagine “what if”. He says, “I’m a pragmatic dreamer – I see all the specific things that need to happen in the short term, but it’s exciting to work towards something.” He always knew that solar would have its big moment, and now the company is perfectly positioned to make that dream a reality.
Eventually, the business needed more capital to support their growth. They raised more funding and now have a team of over 400, supporting clients who make over 100,000 solar designs per week through their AI-powered software. As Christopher says, “it’s been a wild couple of years.”
Life as a founder
Christopher explains that being a CEO means you’re at the nexus of everything. His role is focused on communication and strategy: “I get to talk about finance, people, products, business strategy… It gives the biggest possible view onto the organisation that I love.”
He never set out to be the head of a company but is clearly thriving in the job. The company was the only climate tech business named to the 2022 Forbes AI 50. It was voted the best solar software by Solar Power World in 2021. Over 7,000 organisations rely on the software and over ten million projects have been designed on it. And Christopher himself was named one of the Forbes 30 under 30.
Despite these successes, Christopher “has retained his humble, thoughtful demeanour and has consistently led by example,” according to Dr Bartholomeusz at Stanford, who was instrumental in awarding Aurora Solar their initial funding.
Christopher explains that “as a first-time founder of a company, there’s a lot to learn along the way. And in a business like this that’s growing so fast, your job changes every 12-18 months. What I do today has nothing to do with my first few years in the company where I’d show up, grab a coffee, sit in a bean bag, put on my headphones and write code all day. Apart from the coffee and headphones, it's all changed – now my day is all about people, strategy and fundraising.”
"In the end, it’s simply something I believe in and it’s not something I can put aside. I fundamentally believe the world is better off powered by abundant, cheap, clean energy and I think that’s a future worth fighting for. There were plenty of challenges along the way – and there will be more – but it’s that conviction that keeps me going."
Coming back full circle
Imperial is where a lot of this started.
I met a lot of friends, had some great experiences, and learnt a lot of what I rely on today. Receiving this award is very special as it closes the loop and brings the experience back full circle.
Christopher leaves us with one final piece of advice: leave some room for serendipity and following your curiosity. In his career, one thing led to the next simply because he was doing things he enjoyed and allowing new opportunities to open up. For Aurora Solar, that journey is nowhere near its end – next they’re looking at broadening their offer to streamline more of the solar lifecycle, as well as expanding into new regions.
Christopher’s goal of a future powered by renewables is something we can all get behind. The success of Aurora Solar is a testament to his genuine desire to make clean energy cheaper and easier for everyone.
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