Startup finds sweet spot in solar industry
Feb 7, 2019, 2:01pm HST
It’s a common misconception that solar panels simply need to be set up, left alone, and in a few years, they will pay for themselves in the money you save from your energy bill. Zoltan Milaskey, founder and CEO of Mana Monitoring, saw this as a business opportunity.
“When solar kicked off in Hawaii, there was a misconception that solar panels don’t have any moving parts, so they’re just going to pump out power for the next 20 years, but there’s actually quite a bit of maintenance involved,” Milaskey said. “That’s where our sweet spot is, making sure these systems stay online so that whenever the sun is shining, they’re producing power. That requires a lot of coordination between the people in charge of monitoring and those out in the field.”
The business’s energy aggregator software monitors about 200 solar facilities in the state. Users can generate real-time reports on their energy usage and run diagnostics for solar panel facilities.
Mana Monitoring’s six-person team generated about $500,000 in revenue last year. It manages approximately 200 mega-watts of energy nationwide, including projects with the Hawaii Department of Education — which they acquired in a contract bid — and JLL’s malls on Maui.
Milaskey previously worked as a project development manager for Hawaii Pacific Solar and started the business five years ago as a solar aggregator when he found companies had difficulties monitoring and maintaining their solar panels.
“Solar was being built out fast and nobody was really thinking about how we’re going to take care of these PV systems over the long term,” Milaskey said. “We had to log into 10 different websites, one for each system, and I thought it would be a great idea if it was just logging in on one website. I started working with the asset owners of the company’s financing systems that were having a tough time managing these systems.”
Hawaii Pacific Solar was also Mana Monitoring’s first client, which also gave them the opportunity to test their software for solar laymen.
“The secretary [of HPS] didn’t come from an energy background, so it was always very satisfying to me when, if she couldn’t use it, we’d go back, and we tweak it. That was a great experiment for us to make sure that it’s user-friendly.”
How has your business model evolved over the years? Initially, we narrowly focused on solar operations and management and as we proceeded, we’ve expanded and included energy management and energy efficiency. Originally, we just did the aggregator and pulled all the data in one place and then we realize that okay, for O&M [operations and management], emailing isn’t going to cut it, so we built a ticketing system. Then one of our clients asked, ‘could I use this data to generate a bill automatically?’ and we built in that feature.
What investments did you make when you started your business? I was very lucky, because I knew my partners [Laszlo Lieszkovszky and Akos Nagy] are IT programmers and they put in sweat equity, and I might put in some money — basically from my savings — so it’s all self-funded. It’s positive in the sense it allows us to really focus on what we want to.
It’s a low barrier of entry in software development in the sense that, unlike a manufacturing company, where you have to invest in tools and hardware and machines, software is a people driven business. We are cloud-based, so we invest in computers and tools to create in the cloud, but generally, it’s a people-driven business.
Who are your customers? We’re in the commercial and industrial space. A lot of these technologies are really for utilities and big companies, and then we’re able to take that same tech and provide it to medium sized businesses. [Reaching a consumer market] is in more of a midterm goal, maybe a year and a half or two.
Goals for the next year: Our goals are always to keep reinvesting in our platform. And expand a bit more nationally. We also want to include technology expansion, such as electric vehicle charging, build out some of our algorithms for energy efficiency, and integrating battery storage as another set asset that can be integrated into the platform.
What does Hawaii need to do to stay on track for our 100 percent renewable energy goal? I think Hawaii is definitely on the right track. It takes a community effort to really get there. It’s going to require more solar, more wind, more hydro, and more energy efficiency. It would be good to see both the utility companies and local governments take on a more active role.