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Making solar power generation sustainable with instant monitoring technology

November 12, 2020

UTokyo 30s
Up-and-coming young entrepreneurs

Of the more than 350 University of Tokyo spin-off ventures, we have chosen to feature those by seven energetic young entrepreneurs in their 30s. Four of these companies are located in the venture support facilities on the Hongo Campus, one in the support facilities on the Kashiwa Campus, and one each in the Tokyo neighborhoods of Otemachi and Gotanda. How do these young people go about their daily work, and what kind of people are they? A few glimpses are presented here.

Development of a power-line communications system

Making solar power generation sustainable with instant monitoring technology

Min Li
CEO, Girasol Energy Inc.
picture
Fifteen test panels are installed on the roof. “They’re set at an optimal angle, at which even if bird dung gets on the panels, it is washed off by the rain,” Li says.

Solar power, the face of renewable energy, is becoming more widespread. The efficiency of electric power generation and production capabilities of solar panels have also attained high levels. The key issue now is how to make them sustainable. Aware of the importance of this issue, Min Li from Shanghai, China is working to refine original technology that automatically detects problems in individual panels, which is useful in maintenance. Sensors attached to the panels keep track of the operating status, as a means for real-time remote monitoring.

“Existing technology using wireless communications in fact requires complex wiring to the many relay stations, causing costs to pile up. What’s more, monitoring is possible only for blocks of panels, with human effort needed for identifying the specific bad panels within a block. Our IoT platform, on the other hand, can monitor the status of each panel. This is the fruit of a UTokyo-original technology, which allows us to send the information obtained by sensors over power lines.”

Li, who went from Fudan University to the research lab of Kazuro Kageyama in the Graduate School of Engineering, majoring in Technology Management for Innovation, first took a job at Sony Corporation. Later he joined the Division of University Corporate Relations of UTokyo, working in support of business incubation. In searching the University for research seeds, he came upon the original technology of Hideya Ochiai, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology. Enamored of this technology, Li launched a venture in 2017 aimed at its commercial implementation.

With his master’s degree in technology management, Li felt a burning mission to put university technology to use for society, but management of the venture did not go smoothly. Despite having started a company, six months later, he says he was ready to quit due to an uncertain future and exhausted funds. What stopped him from giving up were the words of his loved one, who had been a university staff member in Shanghai.

“Before I launched the company, I said that if it went well, I should invite her to Japan, whereas if it did not, I should return to China. When I confided in her that I was looking for a job because of the problems with the company, she told me to continue with the venture a bit longer. Right after that, I received a large funding offer, which is how I got to where I am today.”

Girasol Energy has continued with verification trials at numerous solar power installations, including the Hokuto solar project in Okanokouen Park in Yamanashi Prefecture, with its 1,800 25-year-old-panels, and at the LaLaport shopping mall in front of the Kashiwanoha Campus Station in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture. In July 2019, the company announced a capital and business alliance with the Kansai Electric Power Group. Given the many solar power operators whose systems have been in operation for several years, and for whom the need is rising to determine the status of individual panels, there are heightened expectations for this polished technology. Supporting the president in the company, located in the Faculty of Engineering Building 12 on the Hongo Campus, are 12 fellow engineers. Also by his side, providing support for a husband aiming for a sustainable solar-powered society is his wife, to whom he got married in May 2019.

Q & A
What led you to become an international student at the University of Tokyo? “I learned about the Technology Management for Innovation program at the UTokyo booth at a study abroad fair in Shanghai.”
Which China-born entrepreneur do you admire? “Wen-Zhou Song, founder of Softbrain, who did graduate studies at Hokkaido University.”
What anime and book have caught your fancy recently? “The Netflix series “Aggretsuko.” “The Hard Thing about Hard Things" by Ben Horowitz.”
What do you feel when you look at the current generation of people in their 30s? “I believe the environment for them is more open and conducive to taking on challenges than it was for previous generations.”
The sensor that is the pride of Girasol Energy. It can be attached to a panel with a one-touch operation.

* This article was originally printed in Tansei 39 (Japanese language only). All information in this article is as of September 2019.

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