We’re covering Andy’s story as the first one in our Founder Spotlight series because it’s both educational and inspirational. We hope you will like it and, even better, see yourself in the story and start thinking about how you can contribute to the climate crisis!
A robot vehicle loaded with tools and electric wires wheeled into sight, slowly moving itself across the platform, leaving behind a neat row of shingles. This is what Andy Stulc and his team at Renovate Robotics are working on. Eventually, this robot will be able to install solar shingles autonomously on any roof in the US, vastly accelerating the transition to renewable energy by allowing everyone to generate electricity with their own roofs.
Opportunity favors the curious: the quest for a cheaper roofing solution
It all started in 2019, when Andy’s insurance company refused to cover the roofing cost for his new house, forcing him to borrow money for the project. Having spent all his savings on the house, Andy was bitten hard by this experience, seeding the idea for a cheaper roofing solution.
Meanwhile, Andy’s home was in flames. Not his house specifically, but the entire west coast, ravaged by increasingly frequent and intense wildfires. The climate problem was becoming personal to him. A mechanical engineer by training, he wanted to get involved. That’s when he discovered a new generation of roofing products, solar shingles, that are cheaper, easier to install, and more aesthetic than bulky solar panels because they look just like traditional shingles.
The rising solar roofing market vs. labor shortage
The roofing market growth has about 1 million new homes per year and 2 million replacement roofs. Solar panel adoption has been growing super fast, although solar shingles haven’t been adopted widely yet.
One of the challenges with solar adoption is that both the roof and the solar panels have lifetimes of 30 years. It doesn’t make sense to put new solar panels on top of a roof that only has 5 or 10 years of life left. Oftentimes in those cases, the solar installers will actually require that the roof gets replaced before the solar gets installed.
When replacing the roof and adding solar, solar shingles become the cheapest option. To be fair, solar shingles had been around for a while but only got cheaper recently. The main blocker was the cost of the shingles themselves. They were first introduced by DOW Chemical in 2009 but were discontinued only 7 years after because their cost per Watt ($4-12) couldn’t beat traditional solar panels ($3.50) at that time. This changed in 2016 when Tesla entered the game. Tesla was able to cut down costs dramatically to $1.80 per Watt, compared to $3 per Watt for solar panels today.
After the cost of the shingle, the second major bottleneck to solar shingle deployment is the shortage of labor. The roofing workforce has witnessed a stagnation since 2018 - not enough new people are entering the field - even though the demand is taking off. The domestic roofing market has been growing steadily at 3% per year as more people buy homes, and more people are upgrading their roofs to solar shingles. As a result, roofing companies are booked out months in advance.
The demand and cost of electricity are rising too. As more people switch to electric vehicles, utility companies will need to provide 2x to 3x more electricity to meet that demand. People will also look for ways to make their electricity bills cheaper, and generating electricity with their roof space is a natural solution. Distributed power generation may even be encouraged by utility companies in the future as they seek to meet the growing demand - without residential solar, utility companies would need to increase both centralized generation and distribution capacity, which are both big infrastructure projects.
This is where Andy found the promise for robotics - a growing demand for solar roofing bottlenecked by the labor shortage for a repetitive and dangerous task. By automating the most labor-intensive parts of shingle installation, Renovate Robotics’s robot allows roofing contractors to do twice as much work in the same amount of time, thus meeting the growing demand, generating more revenue, and accelerating the renewable energy transition. It’s a win-win.
Zero to One: designing the key hardware mechanism
This dream has been simmering in Andy’s mind until 2020, when the whole world was locked at home due to COVID. Suddenly finding himself with the space and time to think, he couldn’t stop thinking about shingle installation robots, so he started a side project. He broke down the problem into two components. First, the robot attachment to the roof - how to move the robot around the roof accurately and safely. Second, the shingle installation - placing the shingles at the desired location and fixing them to the roof.
The first component was most technically challenging - it took him 12 months to get it right. Over the next 6 months, every night after work, he sketched, simulated and prototyped different attachment mechanisms before he came up with a design that he was confident in. His past 10 years building hardware mechanisms for everything from airplane manufacturing to 3D printing to burger-making robots inspired the prototypes.
Soon after, he quit his job and worked for another 6 months full time to figure out all the details. Thanks to Youtube and a friend who was a roofing contractor, Andy trained himself to be a roofing expert (feel free to ask him for roof installation tips and tricks). The friend also helped immensely with early feedback as someone in the field with real experience.
The result of all this hard work was an innovative hardware mechanism that solves both parts of the problem seamlessly. The mechanism (patent pending) allows the robot to cover the vast majority of surface area on roofs with a wide range of geometries. This is crucial for a scalable solution.
Here’s a few sneak peaks of the prototype system. The team is operating in relative stealth mode until they finish the full system by the end of 2022. Stay tuned for more updates!
The Software-Hardware Trade-off
In February 2022, things started to move quickly. Renovate Robotics raised a seed round with SOSV and joined the well-renowned hardware accelerator HAX in Newark, New Jersey. Shortly after that, the team doubled in size with Adam Baumgartner joining the team, bringing along 10+ years of experience across mechanical and electrical engineering.
As in any robotics solution, there are problems that either hardware or software could solve but one will be easier to implement and can do it better. Take for example the accurate placement of shingles. The robot-roof attachment is only accurate to a certain level. Using hardware to push beyond this boundary doesn’t guarantee good performance as it varies widely from roof to roof even with high-precision motors or encoders. On the other hand, existing computer vision techniques can drastically improve accuracy using only the extra cost of a camera. To Andy, there are many design decisions like this when building a robot from scratch, and it’s important to always consider the hardware and software solutions together and find the right tradeoff to build a robust system.
From Building to Selling
Having been an engineer all his life, Andy considered himself a rookie when it comes to the business side. After joining HAX, he went through a steep learning curve on business fundamentals, pitch decks and storytelling.
The biggest challenge was to communicate the team’s capability to investors and the public before having a full product. The prototype he showed me was the proof-of-concept for the second piece of the puzzle, proving that the robot can install shingles. As a start, they picked the GAF Energy Timberline Solar product because it integrates directly with normal shingles and installs very easily. As they see more success, they plan to expand to other types of solar shingles.
The key, Andy says, is to build out the core functionalities that enable investors and the general public to envision what the final product will look like and build confidence in the team’s ability to execute. Defining the right set of functionality is hard, especially given time, money and personnel constraints. “Hardware is always hard. But as long as we find the right MVP to build, I’m confident about the technical side.”
Throughout this journey, the climate tech company that has inspired Andy the most is Tesla, which is in his words, “making a big dent in a real way”. Tesla doesn’t just develop the technology but also scales it up in the real world. He views Renovate Robotics as complementary to Tesla’s mission.
When asked what advice he has for engineers or researchers looking to join this field, he attributes Renovate Robotics, all his learnings, and the funding opportunity to an open and flexible mindset - “try to be flexible so you have the biggest chance of success.” Climate tech is a burgeoning space with lots of opportunities for big impact, but that requires being open to learning new things and, of course, to “always be hustling”. If you believe in the mission and the people, jump right in!
Here are our key takeaways from Andy’s story:
First, the roofing market is a classic example of the traditional industry that could be made more efficient by robotics in order to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
Second, started as a side project, Renovate Robotics is a great proof that you can jump into an unfamiliar field and deliver a great solution, as long as you put enough time and effort into it.
If you are interested in getting involved in climate robotics, we hope you’d find these takeaways helpful! Don’t forget to like this article at the bottom! Check out our other blog posts here.
This is the first in our Founder Spotlight series, where we uncover the journeys of founders working on climate robotics solutions. We encourage you to think about how you can apply your skill set to the climate problem, or if there are any similar problems in climate change that could be solved by a similar approach?
Do you know a cool company or person actively working on climate robots? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!
Thanks Robert Eng, Aliris Tang, Cian Costello and Dean Wilhelmi for valuable discussions and editing suggestions!