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Elpis Solar: "We envision a world where today’s 940 million people without access to electricity is a thing of the past"

With the conclusion of Stage 2 of this year’s ECCI EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator approaching, we caught up with the entrepreneurs pulling the strings behind some of UK’s most promising climate start-ups. Meet Alexandros Angelopoulos from Elpis Solar...

What is your company and product all about, in a nutshell?

Elpis Solar is a registered social enterprise that evolved from the student-led initiative Elpis (synonym for hope in Greek) co-founded by Alexandros Angelopoulos and Samuel Kellerhals during their academic years at the University of Edinburgh back in 2016.

Elpis Solar provides essential off-grid services and employment in refugee camps (electricity, water, education) and rural communities.

We have developed bespoke, low-cost solar-powered infrastructure that provide mobile phone charging, water treatment services (water purification/sterilisation using novel UV-C technology) and access to educational libraries of e-resources to off-grid refugee settlements.

Our solar systems in refugee camps use remote monitoring technology and provide near real-time usage data. Moreover, we aim to increase transparency and visibility in the social/environmental impact investing space by building a web-interface from where companies and investors can invest in off-grid solar solutions and build up a quantifiable CSR portfolio. Users of the platform will also be able to view their impact over time and generate sustainability impact reports on demand.

Tell us about your background.

Alexandros Angelopoulos is the co-founder of Elpis Solar (Greek for hope), a social enterprise that delivers essential services (i.e. access to clean, filtered and disinfected water, mobile phone charging, lighting and access to educational resources) to underserved off-grid communities worldwide through solar power. Thanks to his multidisciplinary background in environmental sciences, green finance, sustainability and entrepreneurship, Alexandros has capitalised on the skills and knowledge acquired through his UK education to advance social innovation through resilient clean-tech solutions. He has received several awards in recognition of his impactful work with more than 30,000 users a month in eight refugee camps in Greece, and in the biggest refugee camp in Rwanda, as well as a scholarship from his UK university. Alexandros aims to continue combining technical and business model innovation for the delivery of viable solutions for the world’s population without access to electricity or water. Alexandros holds a Bachelor of Science in Ecological and Environmental Sciences with Management from the University of Edinburgh and a Master of Science in Climate Change, Finance and Management from Imperial College London.

Samuel Kellerhals aims to catalyse progress in the environmental and social impact sphere through the use of data-driven solutions. With a BSc in Environmental Sciences from the University of Edinburgh, and an MSc in Data Science from the University of Amsterdam, he has a strong grasp of software engineering, data analytics, and machine learning. He is a key force behind the development of Elpis Solar’s offline EdTech solution for refugees and is spearheading the development of the Elpis Solar remote monitoring system and impact investment platform.

What plans have you moved forward while taking part in ECCI's EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator Stage 2?

Taking part in ECCI's EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator Stage 2 has allowed us to refine our revenue model, conduct customer segmentation, test our key model assumptions and finetune our main profitability drivers.

The workshops hosted by ECCI and the experienced team of mentors and business professionals enabled us to track and minimise our environmental footprint solidifying our Green Lean Canvas.

Additionally, we’ve made progress with the development of a new, first of its-kind portable water filtration system (a new domestic offering) fitted with UV-C water sterilization technology capable of eliminating 99.9% of water borne bacteria and protozoan micro-organisms. Through a locally implemented distribution model, micro-entrepreneurs in Rwanda will operate the units under a franchising model, collecting micro-payments for the services delivered using mobile money accounts, and hence recouping the initial CAPEX required to purchase the match-funded/subsidised solar-powered units.

Lastly, during the EIT Climate-KIC programme we have defined the architecture of our remote monitoring system, assessing the health of our systems, collecting energy usage analytics and real-time impact metrics. Having developed our first MVP version of the remote-monitoring and impact-reporting platform allows us to initiate a fundraising round for the testing of our technical solutions at scale, on the ground in East Africa.

What plans have you for expansion beyond?

Continuing to deliver impact across off grid communities and refugee settlements worldwide we are planning a new project scale-up across East Africa, with unit installations in Rwanda and Uganda, expanding our operations in camps we have already serviced along with new locations of implementation. We aim to roll-out a solar-micro entrepreneurship scheme where we train and give ownership of our devices to refugees to run their ‘solar business’. Mobile phone charging devices, water purifiers and domestic portable water treatment units, all fitted with remote monitoring capabilities will be tested in real conditions.

We also plan to use our usage data to quantify the amount of carbon offsets generated, which can be used as part of a voluntary carbon offset programme. Corporates willing to integrate the Elpis Solar products under their CSR portfolio will have the option to purchase Verified Emission Reductions (VERs) for voluntary climate action and Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) for meeting compliance targets.

What’s your ultimate goal?

Placing environmental sustainability and the advancement of societal welfare at the forefront of our goals, we are re-envisioning the future of philanthropy and impact investing. We integrate data analytics and machine learning into the delivery of immediate response relief energy and water treatment solutions.

We envision a world were today’s 940 million people without access to electricity and 780 million without access to an improved water source is a thing of the past.

By combining technical and business model innovation we aim to bring cost-effective, clean-tech solutions to the world’s most under-served communities.

What is your greatest achievement?

Until now, the net impact generated by 11 devices, deployed in 5 refugee camps in Greece and 1 in Rwanda, translates into: over 30,000 users per month, and over 2 metric tons of CO2 saved annually.

Moreover, through our activities we raise awareness on the topic both on campus and internationally, with media coverage in 5 languages and 40 publications featuring our story; one of the highlights of our university years for both Samuel and myself was the fact that we were the first students to receive the Principal’s (Timothy O’ Shea) medal for our Contribution to the Community, a prestigious university award in recognition of our hard work. Additionally, we have received various sustainability awards in Edinburgh, Switzerland and New York, where last year we were selected amongst the finalists at MIT Solve’s global challenge for Community Driven Innovation.

Your views on Scotland and Edinburgh’s sustainability scene?

Scotland is leading the sustainability scene, setting a clear policy agenda that supports and incubates a great amount of high-growth start-ups and initiatives that focus on building long-lasting, bankable solutions which at the same time meet ESG investment criteria, set climate-based targets and meet the 17 SDGs. The ecosystem for social enterprises is very supportive bringing the right industry players, policy makers, academics and research institutions closer together for a common goal; to accelerate the transition to a net-zero carbon world, a more equitable world where real value and impact is being delivered to the community. Scotland’s climate action plan and the commitments made for advancing sustainable development manifest in Scotland’s actions. We are delighted to be part of this effort and we hope to continue building strong partnerships.

What role has the support offered to you by ECCI's EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator Stage 2 played in your success?

We are grateful to have been given the opportunity to be part of a community of like-minded peers, mentors, business coaches and industry leaders, sharing the common vision of advancing sustainability, climate resilience while promoting social wellbeing. Until now we’ve had the chance to spearhead our innovation, challenge some of our business model’s assumptions, refine our business pitch and customer engagement strategy as well as review the carbon footprint of our product’s lifecycle both upstream and downstream. Being a newly registered enterprise comes with a lot of legal and reporting commitments. Through the workshops hosted we’ve had the chance to interact with other entrepreneurs that have been through what we are now experiencing as well as subject matter experts that gave us the right guidance in moving forward. The funding provided and the opportunity to cross-validate business ideas are only some of the many benefits of taking part in the EIT Climate-KIC programme. The networking opportunities available, the resources and personalised mentorship sessions make the whole experience a very rewarding one.

Why are competitions that support green innovation important during Covid-19?

It is important to keep supporting green innovation amidst these challenging times as we need to ensure that we stay ahead of the game regarding our climate mitigation commitments for the various projected global warming scenarios. In the humanitarian sector we operate in, energy safety and WASH programmes now take less precedence in the face of the pandemic, as COVID-19 has largely brought to a halt various global emergency relief programmes. Nevertheless it is important to continue working towards the delivery of impactful clean-tech solutions to the world’s most vulnerable populations, espescially when a lot of vital funding is currently being diverted to other areas of need such as healthcare.

How do you relax?

Having to adapt during these unusual times we are experiencing meant that I also had to adapt my work-life balance and establish a healthy routine. Going for outdoor walks and sailing during the weekends has helped me stay focused and motivated. Looking at the positive side of this pandemic, I now get to spend more quality time with family.

EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator

ECCI's renowned Accelerator programme, which gives low carbon start-ups the funding, tools and coaching they need to grow into great businesses, has adapted to the challenges of COVID-19 by switching coaching and mentoring sessions online.

Since launching in 2017 ECCI's EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator businesses have secured more than £2.5m worth of investments and won more than 70 awards.

Stage 2 helps participants understand their target audience and comes with up to €5000 funding. The innovative 2020 cohort included six companies progressing from Stage 1 and three new recruits - with entrepreneurs from all across Scotland and the UK taking part in the wholly online programme.

Innovations range from off-grid solar technology which will enable people in refugee camps to become more self-sufficient, to a product that helps forestry organisations meet government goals on tree planting and a super-fast carbon measurement software tool for SMEs.