By Emily Kirsch, co-founder and CEO of Powerhouse
The personal stories of today’s cleantech luminaries are rarely told. At conferences, we’re introduced to the latest technologies and market trends, but we often lose sight of human-centric catalysts that drive this innovation. For solar pioneer and industry giant SunPower, the catalyst behind the business is Dick Swanson.
Dick was raised in Columbus, Ohio, as the son of a botanist. From his early years, Dick showed a penchant for rebellion. He attended the College of Wooster, a small liberal arts Presbyterian college, but never found the patience for his First Testament classes. Dick left Wooster to seek work in a nearby oil town where he was told he could clean dirt off oil drills; needless to say, he opted to work at a box factory instead. Dick then went to The Ohio State University where he restarted his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.
Dick was married at 20, which at the time still required his parents’ permission, and had his first kid by the age of 21. In the early 1970s, with two young children in tow and now a single parent, Dick pursued a Ph.D in electrical engineering from Stanford, where he later joined as faculty to begin research in solar cell technology. In 1985, with a grant from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Dick hired a lab tech and two postdocs and started SunPower. At the time, SunPower was called Eos, named after the Greek goddess of the dawn. Its first non-academic hire joined on the condition that it change the name. SunPower’s financial model that Dick created in 1988 ran through 2000, which humored potential investors at the time because of its long time horizon. When SunPower went public in 2005, those who had laughed at his model and passed on the deal missed out.
His latest project is a software-controlled carbon zero house which is in stealth startup mode. Few people have contributed so much to the industry. Dick Swanson has inspired a generation of entrepreneurs to follow his path.