Billy Parish is the president and co-founder of Mosaic, a two-year-old Internet “crowdfunding” service that lets individual investors put their money into commercial solar projects and earn a rate of return that currently beats anything offered by a bank. Based in Oakland, California, Mosaic is at the forefront of a movement to democratize finance and combat climate change by using the Internet to connect investors to local solar energy projects.
The company’s first three for-profit projects sold out within 24 hours in January and raised $300,000 from more than 500 investors who will earn a 4.5 percent return. This month, California regulators authorized Mosaic to offer up to $100 million in loans for commercial solar projects. Its first project under that authorization, a $157,750 loan to install a 114-kilowatt array on the Ronald McDonald House in San Diego, was funded within six hours by 171 investors.
Parish, 31, dropped out of Yale University a decade ago to co-found the Energy Action Coalition, a nationwide student network devoted to fighting climate change. But after the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, he decided that the most effective way to drive a clean energy transition was to dive into the renewable energy business. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Todd Woody, Parish talked about why his generation has pursued environmental goals through entrepreneurship, how crowdfunding can fuel the solar revolution, and how he discovered “that sweet spot where making money and doing good overlap.”
Yale Environment 360: You had made your name as a climate activist. At what point did you decide to go into business and why?
Billy Parish: It was after Copenhagen and I felt like we weren’t doing enough and what we needed was to accelerate the solution side to build public support, to prove to political leaders and corporate leaders that 100 percent clean energy was possible, and in fact inevitable. I felt like business was what was going to deliver that.
e360: What led you to that conclusion about business?
Parish: It was partially discovering clean tech. Around the same time I met an entrepreneur who was developing a new thin-film solar technology, another group that had a high-efficiency motor technology, another group that had an algae fuel technology. And it struck me that clean tech and disruptive new technologies were an X-factor in the climate equation. I dropped out of college and I didn’t have a technical background, but it struck me that there wasn’t an opportunity to leverage the online organizing and social movement work I was doing to effectively deploy clean technologies.
e360: Why do you think your generation has such an entrepreneurial bent and doesn’t necessarily see a conflict between doing well and doing good?
Parish: Let me try two answers. I think, one, that there’s a certain pragmatism in the millennial generation. I think they recognize it’s business that provides virtually all the goods and services that we all enjoy, but there are smarter and better ways to provide those things, and they want to be part of doing things in a better way.
The other is we kind of grew up with corporate social responsibility. We saw companies changing and companies doing good things and saw the potential for a different kind of corporation. There’s been growing excitement about the B corporation, the benefit corporation. Businesses can be about something other than a single bottom line and young people are excited about that and believe that.
e360: In your book, Making Good, you write about the sweet spot where making money and doing good overlap. Has technology made it easier to find that sweet spot?
Parish: Yeah, just look at Mosaic. We couldn’t have done Mosaic even three or four years ago. Partly that’s the price curve of solar. Solar has come down 80 percent over the past four years. But it’s equally about the rise of cloud computing and software as a service. We don’t have big data centers and servers in our office — everything is in the cloud. To do what we have done from a platform and technology perspective would have cost millions of dollars a couple of years ago.
It’s a lot easier to hack together a solution now. You have access to all the information in the world through the Internet and services that have developed to support that. There’s been this movement toward a lean startup approach. You don’t need to start with a cathedral. You start with the first couple of bricks.
e360: You and your co-founders chose to go into renewable energy finance, a business dominated by big banks and corporations. You had little or no background in finance. Why did you think Mosaic could even hope to compete?
Parish: One of our cofounders actually does have a background in finance. Steve Richmond, our chief financial officer, started a couple of different software companies. One was sold to Oracle. He really came at this from a financial services innovation perspective.
Dan [Rosen], Arthur [Coulston] and I more came at it from a perspective of accelerating clean energy and leveraging the Internet to disrupt these markets. When we started we didn’t see ourselves as going up against the big banks. I think as the company has developed we see more clearly how our financial system is broken and how distributed finance may be a better match for financing distributed clean energy than traditional big banks.