Anne McIvor chats to Mike Fister, CEO of Enecsys - November 2012 on the occasion of the GP Bullhound Cleantech Connect Awards: Celebrating the EntrepreneurMike Fister describes himself as “an old computer guy” – a computer designer by trade, a “Silicon Valley guy – the sort of guy who doesn’t fool around, works hard, plays hard, and generally succeeds”. His passions are teamwork, ideas and partnerships, and he says he is a maniac – working 16-hour days, six and a half day weeks. He’s also passionate about music, drags an acoustic guitar around with him and was in bands for ten years (mostly rock & roll and country). Music, to Mike, is “just like business and life: it’s interesting – full of complex theory”.
Working in wood is another passion, one he describes as “a precision hobby” which is “creative beyond belief”. Mike’s employees over the years (his career has included 20 years at Intel, as VP and General Manager of the Performance Processor Division and then the End User Components Division – as well as CEO of Cadence) often received his wooden bowls and furniture as prizes.
Mike’s new passion is solar – well, to be precise, it’s the micro inverters for the solar industry developed by Enecsys, where he has been CEO for over a year. Since joining Enecsys, Mike has observed many similarities between the solar industry and the computer industry. He believes the story of micro inverters is analogous to the Intel story of the late 1990s and that the history of efficiencies in the computer industry, driven by the development of the architecture of a microprocessor, is repeating itself through the Enecsys micro inverter and its impact upon the solar industry. “It’s no coincidence that the word micro sits in front of both,” he says.
Enecsys targets residential solar applications with its micro inverter, a product with the ability to harvest more energy than incumbent technologies. Supporting single modules rather than large numbers of panels, the technology avoids entire panels being knocked out if there’s a malfunction in one area. Mike sees enormous scope for information contained within the processor to be integrated and used by a utility company. He believes there’s a massive market crying out for sophisticated electronics in the space.
Enecsys’ key driver in the near term, however, is the advantage offered to roof owners in terms of enhanced energy harvesting from installations of 5kW and less. Mike observes that market distortions such as feed-in-tariffs have encouraged the installation of large numbers of modules very quickly – which is less interesting for the Enecsys product. However, as the market normalises Mike expects the micro inverter (like the microprocessor) to drive change within a relatively static situation. It offers a big advantage over traditional offerings, especially for solar installations of 5kW or less, which is where the economics of an Enecsys inverter become really attractive.
Mike considers himself lucky to have been part of the microprocessor revolution at Intel which changed the world. He says the world also needs a solar revolution – but that his role at Enecsys is simply to build a great business. He wishes the solar industry was “not in such a funk”, but says that the steep falls in solar prices, although disturbing to see, are making solar more affordable. Mike believes we have to be optimistic about the solar industry: “Not only is it a noble cause, but the technology makes sense!”
The biggest difference between solar and software, according to Mike, is the capital requirement. Very little capital is needed to build a software company, but at Enecsys there’s a combination of both hardware and software, so it’s different. “Enecsys has a very light model, but nothing is as easy as software to get into the game,” he says.
According to Mike, the Enecsys technology, which originated at Cambridge University, was hard to develop, but, as he puts it: “Once you break the magic, new things happen”. He sees the Enecsys innovation as analogous to software in terms of that magic – albeit with working capital involved.
Just as Mike himself is not a veteran of the solar industry, he admits that he prefers recruiting from parallel industries as employees from outside solar come with fresh, potentially valuable ideas. He describes the Enecsys team as small, with a rich experience base and says that it’s an intoxicating and engaging place to work. In some companies “good ideas sometimes don’t reach the light of day”, but Enecsys has that ‘magic ‘– or luck? However it’s defined, it’s the “passion that makes a successful company, whether in software or cleantech”. Mike employs “the best people and the people that believe” at Enecsys, which has offices in Taiwan (close to the supply chain), Silicon Valley, Germany and, of course, Cambridge.
Enecsys, Mike says, is lucky to have a “fantastic set of investors “ and emphasises that these investors are one of the main reasons he is working there today. Most of the investors are represented on the Enecsys board, including Mossadiq S. Umedaly (Executive Chairman) and Bart Markus, both of Wellington Partners; George Coelho of Good Energies; Simon Drury of CCC Private Equity Fund; and Poul Erik Schou-Pedersen of NES Partners.
Competition in the micro inverter market comes from companies like SMA, Powerone and Enphase. The Enecsys offering, however, is significantly different from any of these and Mike is excited about the unique opportunity. He says the Enecsys product is sufficiently differentiated to take an alternative approach, which is to become an enabler of massive build-out of residential and light commercial rooftop solar installations via partnerships directly with module manufacturers as well as distributors. Module manufacturers are typically seeking new ways to add value to their products and want to integrate vertically and, as Mike puts it: “It makes sense to pool resources”. He says Enecsys doesn’t need to grow into a large company with hundreds of employees, but can access end customers and move more quickly via this model. Enecsys, according to Mike, is positioned within an industry chain which is complex – more so than software. But it is this, he says, which makes it interesting. In terms of the distribution channels, however, he says “they’re not complicated”.
With his Intel experience, Mike is set to lead Enecsys into vertically integrated and OEM markets. He believes “the idea that a module manufacturer can differentiate themselves with electronics content is good”, but reflects that Enecsys doesn’t need “the sort of consumer brand identity that found value within Intel“. Mike and the Enecsys team will have to work very hard to pull it off, he says, but the end goal is clear: “It’s not about what, it’s about how”.
Mike attributes much of his own success to the great training ground of Intel, where the philosophy was: “Let’s do something amazing”. That philosophy, Mike says, has impacted his entire life – his whole career and personality.
Asked for advice to young entrepreneurs, Mike offered three thoughts:
1. As in sports, in business it is usually a team that makes the difference. The limitation is when you don’t anticipate that.
2. (This one came from Mike’s father.) There are few things in this world that are easy. Talented people might make things appear easy, but scratch the surface and there’s a different story.
3. Look at the environment where your business sits from end to end – from funding to delivery and all facets of customer relationships – to find the most leverageable outlets to be all you can be.
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