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Bringing solar power to India

CEO of Orb Energy, Damian Miller talks about his mission to bring clean solar energy to developing countries.

Solar power plant - aerial view

Join podcast series host Conrad Chua, Executive Director of the Cambridge MBA as we bring you a series of interviews with students, alumni and industry professionals from the wider Cambridge Judge Business School network sharing their insights on career paths taken after completing their Cambridge MBA. In this episode we hear from energy entrepreneur and start up CEO Damian Miller on the alternative energy sector in the developing world, especially in the Indian sub-continent. Damian is not an MBA graduate but his journey after completing his PHD is something that many MBAs will aspire to.

Solar got sold off which was insane, as at the time the world was pivoting towards solar energy. It was at that point that I thought I would go it alone

Damian Miller

The journey from Shell to Orb Energy

Damian Miller completed his PhD in the late 1990s at Cambridge Judge Business School and always being interested in renewable energies he focused his MPhil on solar home systems. On graduating he approached Shell who, at the time were getting into the business of renewables, and; “When I showed them my financial models and explained that I thought that there was a good market in rural areas of developing countries the Head of Shell Solar hired me on the spot.”

Initially I was managing expansion for Shell across India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines with an additional South African business and some holdings in China as well, despite heavy subsidies there.

“They gave me a lot of licence to operate, a lot of freedom to execute and try different business models to develop and we were successful in setting up a profitable division within Shell Solar selling solar home systems in rural areas. For me it was a great test bed of what works and what doesn’t work and how do you manage these businesses.”

Then it ended abruptly as Shell Solar said they were getting out of solar altogether – “It was at that point that I saw an opportunity to then go it alone.”

What do you do when your employer shuts down their investment in the one area you have been working on for years – the answer is start your own business.

Conrad Chua, Director of the Cambridge MBA

Damian Miller founded Orb Energy in late 2006 as a company addressing the issue of clean energy in India, through the adoption of solar energy

“The team I had in India was always the strongest team within the portfolios I had managed for Shell and they indicated they would like to continue without Shell. I was then able to, based on our strong track record with Shell, approach a London based business angel and with the venture capital firm investment we started towards the end of 2006 with about 2.5 million.”

Describing the market for solar panels in India

“The market has evolved a lot in twenty years, it was initially very expensive, and it was off grid and very rural; for example, solar with batteries for homes with either no power or unreliable power, water pumping and so on, even that was very expensive so there were only very small niche applications for the technology.”

“After the 2008 financial crisis there was a big slowdown across Europe mainly relating to the number of subsidies and installations and this in turn created enormous imbalances across the marketplace with supply still coming out of China and demand plummeting together with prices. As prices fell new segments in the market opened up and one of those was rooftop installations for the commercial industrial market in India.”

The challenges of running Orb Energy across the past decade and its growth

“There have been many challenges, the number one challenge is always building your team and finding a team you can trust to build your business and be effective in executing your business strategy. Ramesh and I were fortunate to be able to tap into the team that we had already developed with Shell. As many as ten people from Shell Solar India came along to Orb Energy, so we had a good team from day one.”

Orb Energy’s attraction to investors

From Bamboo Capital Partners to the Acumen Fund, Orb Energy has attracted a long list of reputable investors, many of whom invest in companies with a social purpose.

“When we started we were very focused on rural off grid homes so that had an enormous impact for those homes in rural locations and even as we’ve pivoted to commercial industrial we’ve retained our roots in serving this under-served segment of the market.”

Damian Miller is doing such exciting work in Bangalore and the story we hear is one of great challenges but also one of great opportunities for businesses to grow and to have social impact.