MBAs Doing Great Things: Meet The MIT MBA Making Solar Energy Accessible — On Any Surface

MBAs Doing Great Things: Meet The MIT MBA Making Solar Energy Accessible — On Any Surface

Active Surfaces founders Shiv Bhakta, left, and Richard Swartwout. Active Surfaces won the won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and Bhakta, a dual-degree MS/MBA student at MIT, says “The climate space is evolving quickly. The more I talk to people that are dedicating their lives to different verticals within each of those categories, the more I’m able to understand how big the challenge is.” Courtesy photos

Solar energy is on the rise. But Shiv Bhakta says there are two barriers to making it more accessible: affordability and the cumbersome process of solar panel installation.

“When you look at the deployment of solar today, the cost isn’t just for the solar module; it’s labor costs, structural costs, and everything else required to get a solar panel on a building,” says Bhakta, an MIT dual-degree MS/MBA student.

“Plus, many people don’t own the building they live in so it’s hard to do a permanent install, and many homes may have different weight-bearing capacities.”


MBAs Doing Great Things: Meet The MIT MBA Making Solar Energy Accessible — On Any Surface

Bhakta’s family immigrated to the U.S. from a rural village in the Indian state of Gujarat before he was born. In the ninth grade, his family returned there for a year. “Our house was basically one long bedroom and kitchen,” he explains. “The roof, like many others, was made of natural materials; it isn’t designed to hold solar panels.”

“If you want my grandma’s house in India to have solar energy, we can’t do it with today’s solar technology,” continues Bhakta. “This is a big problem around the world. If we want to make it cheaper and accessible to more surfaces, those are both equity-related issues.”

Three months into his degree at MIT, Bhakta met another student, Richard Swartwout—a PhD in electrical and electronics engineering—in his Climate Energy Ventures class. Swartwout had been developing the idea for ultralight fabric solar panels—thinner than a single human hair—to turn any surface into a power source. Bhakta was immediately intrigued, and soon they joined forces to create Active Surfaces, a company that creates solar cells that can be laminated onto many different surfaces, such as the sails of a boat, tents and tarps deployed in disaster relief, or the wings of a drone. The best part: the technology can easily be integrated with minimal installation needs, making it more accessible across the world.

MBAs Doing Great Things: Meet The MIT MBA Making Solar Energy Accessible — On Any Surface

Active Surfaces won the 2023 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition


Traditionally, solar panels are encased in thick glass. Contrary to this method, the Active Surfaces technology is printed. At one-hundredth the weight of conventional solar panels, these flexible 4-inch-by-4-inch panels generate 18 times more power per kilogram than regular panels.

“Because of that, the cost of both the actual module and the overall install are significantly cheaper than what’s in the world today,” he says. “If we can have a solar panel that is more flexible—that could be rolled and integrated more easily—then we can completely change how we install it, and that’s how you have huge changes in cost. If you’re able to lower the upfront cost of solar energy and make it more accessible, then you can democratize access to it.”

While the Active Surfaces team is open to serving multiple markets, the main one they’re targeting is commercial warehouses. “This is an unmet need because a lot of buildings have structural constraints in terms of how much weight they can support,” he says. “Here, there’s hundreds of gigawatts of opportunity for low load-bearing commercial warehouses.”

See P&Q’s other coverage of MBAs Doing Great Things: For This Wharton Student, Financial Literacy Was A Path To Independence and Meet The Harvard MBA Who Wants To Turn On The Lights In Africa’s Largest Economy 


MBAs Doing Great Things: Meet The MIT MBA Making Solar Energy Accessible — On Any SurfaceBhakta says he entered B-school with the same tenacity that his family had when they moved to the U.S. “They came here with nothing; they worked in small, blue-collar jobs—mainly in the hospitality sector,” he shares.

When his parents first arrived in America, they eventually saved enough money to get a small business loan to buy a run-down motel in Phoenix. “I spent my entire life around small businesses, working on them every weekend,” he continues.

Seeking something different for his life, he got his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and landed “a nice, cushy, stable job” as a project manager at ExxonMobil afterwards. “I learned a lot, but got bored of it,” says Bhakta.

He left and got a job at the Department of Energy for the National Nuclear Security Administration, where he worked on billion-dollar capital projects. He then transferred to its tech office, where they work with the national labs to develop novel energy technologies. There, he saw a lot of problems in how energy-focused startups are commercializing. “I came to MIT with that interest in mind,” he explains. “I was curious about how I could help address climate change and how I could use my energy background to spearhead novel energy deployment.”


During the Climate Energy Ventures class where Bhakta met Swartwout, the pair worked in a group with a former BCG consultant and a former UN employee to develop a business plan. This plan culminated in Harvard’s 2022 Annual Climate Symposium pitch, which they ended up winning in November 2022.

While the two other students are no longer involved, they’re supporting them from the sidelines as Bhakta and Swartwout dive head-first into building the company as its first employees—Bhakta as the co-founder and head of business development, and Swartwout as the co-founder and CTO.

They’ve made considerable headway in less than a year; last spring, the Active Surfaces team won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, as well as an extra $10k from the audience choice awards at the same competition. They will continue to raise funds at another startup pitch competition in Singapore in September, as well as through fundraising a formal round.

To learn more about raising funds, Bhakta took an internship at MUUS Climate Partners, a venture capital fund started by a former Sloan MBA, this spring. There, he learned the sales cycle of pitching. “When you’re a startup founder pitching, it’s easy to think everything revolves around you,” he says. “I realized that VCs need to think about portfolio construction and connecting to LPs.”


As the co-president of the First-Generation College Graduate / Low Income Club (FLI) at MIT, Bhakta says that starting a venture as a person of color from a FLI background has been inspiring for a few folks. “That’s what keeps me going,” he says.

For those with FLI backgrounds, being able to go from where they came from to achieving their dreams teaches them the right entrepreneurial mindset. “You have to make the most of what you have with limited resources,” he says.

For those who want to tackle starting a climate change venture, he suggests that they “throw [themselves] into the deep end.”

“The climate space is evolving quickly,” he says. “The more I talk to people that are dedicating their lives to different verticals within each of those categories, the more I’m able to understand how big the challenge is.”

While addressing these big issues will take a ton of different skills and brain power, Bhakta says the positive is that it means that you have a lot of allies. “There’s no reason why everyone can’t win together,” he adds. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from friends that are tackling different verticals that are helping mentor us as we grow.”

His team has hired two MBA Sloan interns this summer to help him with business development, and he expects to be manufacturing the technology at scale by 2026.


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