Engineering Meets Sculpture: BISTEG Brings Aesthetics to Solar Power
BISTEG-USA designs thermal electric solar blocks that can be attached to building façades to generate electricity. Its products are intended for architectural applications where typical photovoltaic solar cells would be rejected on aesthetic grounds. In this post, BISTEG’s cofounder and CEO, Jason Stauffer, gives a personal account of moving away from a strictly technical background to one that is more focused on beauty, and how that move helped him explore the market for beautiful green technology — and then build a business around his ideas.
A Sculptor in Engineer’s Clothing
I realized something very frightening during the junior year of my civil engineering degree: I didn’t want to be an engineer. For a veteran using VA benefits to go to college, that’s like being on the 7:15 to Topeka and coming to the realization that you don’t want to be in Kansas. There’s no way you are getting away from your destination without crashing the whole **** ride.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like my education. I truly enjoyed learning about the mechanics of things — mathematics, physics, statics, dynamics, and all the other concepts that helped to give me a deeper understanding of the workings of the world. But there was something that was lacking in all of that technical education. That thing was beauty.
The next few weeks after that epiphany were kind of depressing. I’d spent three years in college and 75% of my GI Bill money chasing a career that, come to find out, was not going to give me the sense of beauty I was looking for in the world. What do I do? Drop out? (No way, you’ve come too far.) Change majors and start all over? (No way, man, your GI Bill is almost spent.) Suck it up and finish this degree? (Yup, that’s the answer.) It won’t be so bad, I figured. There are plenty of opportunities for someone with an engineering degree outside of the engineering field. But still, resolving myself to finishing an engineering degree with no desire to become an engineer left me feeling . . . unmotivated.
Around the time I came to that epiphany, I had lunch with a professor for whom I had been working as an undergraduate teaching assistant. He summed up my problem pretty well:
“Jason, when you looked at structures, you saw sculptures. And that ain’t engineering.”
The Challenge: Make Solar Energy Beautiful
He was right. All my life I had looked at structures — skyscrapers, stadiums, bridges, all those great big engineering marvels of society — like works of art. The form, the geometry, the symmetry, the materials all seemed to me like the mediums used by a sculptor. Apparently, I thought that being an engineer meant that I was going to be a sculptor. Such is not often the case with an engineering education.
But I wondered: Why can’t I be both? Why not a sculptor-engineer (or at least a sculptor with an engineering degree)? Why can’t I carve out my own path and do something that is functional while also being beautiful?
Soon after that lunch, that same professor presented me with a project. The project was to build a startup company based on the idea that solar energy doesn’t have to look the way it looks. Make something functional and beautiful. Engineer sculptures.
So that’s what we did. We started a company based on an idea that solar energy didn’t have to live on rooftops and parking garages or in desert fields. Solar energy can be all around us. It can be on the faces of our buildings, in our parks, in our public spaces. It can be on our freeways and dams, around our airports, seaports, bus stations, train stations, and taxi stands. We can integrate solar thermal electricity generation into our built environment, so long as we make it beautiful enough. Engineering can be beautiful.
We’ve gotten pretty far with that idea. We’ve won a couple of competitions, shaken a lot of hands, had a lot of conversations and made a couple of pivots as a company. But the idea remains: We engineer sculptures. We make solar energy beautiful.
Watch for part 2 of the story next week. We’ll be looking at how Jason has taken an idea of making solar energy beautiful and started to turn it into a reality, and a business!