Solar Electricity Startup NovoMoto Wins WI Business Plan Contest

NovoMoto, a clean energy startup that sells packages of solar panels, lamps, batteries, and other equipment to rural households in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was crowned the top winner of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest on Wednesday.

One hundred households in the western provinces of Congo currently pay to use equipment provided by Madison, WI-based NovoMoto, said Mehrdad Arjmand, one of the company’s co-founders. He estimates that figure will climb to 2,000 by the end of 2018.

“We are on a path to scale,” Arjmand said during a pitch he gave on Tuesday to investors and other members of the state’s startup community.

People in Congo spend more than $2.7 billion annually on kerosene and electricity to keep their homes lit and smartphones charged, Arjmand said. That’s roughly equivalent to one-third of the average resident’s take-home pay, he added.

NovoMoto markets its equipment as a cheaper and more eco-friendly alternative to kerosene. Customers pay recurring fees, which Arjmand said start at $2.15 a week, and own the system after three years or whatever time period their payment plan stipulates.

A user pays NovoMoto using his or her phone, and after doing so receives a text message with a code that lets him or her turn on lights and other equipment provided by the company. If two months go by without a customer making a payment, agents hired by NovoMoto come to the person’s home and remove the system.

Launched in 2016, NovoMoto has received about $200,000 in awards, grant funding, and outside investment, Arjmand said. The startup is seeking to raise a $300,000 seed round and has received investor commitments for about one-third of that total, he said.

NovoMoto decided to sell its products in off-grid villages in Congo in part because Aaron Olson, the startup’s other co-founder, was born there and spent some of his childhood living in the country. Arjmand estimates there are more than 3 million homes without electricity in the five Congolese provinces where NovoMoto currently operates. He said his startup also plans to sell to businesses.

“We have established a supply and logistics chain in the country,” he said. “We have managers and technicians on the ground.”

While NovoMoto is a for-profit company, it also has what Arjmand describes as a “social impact mission.” It provides free electricity to a school and medical clinic in every village it operates in, he said.

The startup’s competitors in the developing world include San Francisco-based d.light.

For now, NovoMoto’s target market is the entire country of Congo, Arjmand said. However, he and Olson have already had discussions with people in Brazil about providing power to residents of remote villages there.

The business plan contest reportedly awards cash and in-kind services worth an estimated $190,000. The Wisconsin Technology Council, which helps organize the competition, did not say the exact amount of money that NovoMoto will receive.

Past recipients of the top prize in include Northern Star Fire last year, Hyde Sportswear in 2016, and BluDiagnostics in 2015.

NovoMoto, along with three other startups that took first place in their respective categories, were selected from more than 200 entries. Here are descriptions of the other category winners:

DataChat (information technology): Madison-based startup developing tools to help people who aren’t sophisticated software programmers retrieve data from multiple sources via brief text queries. Read Xconomy’s profile of DataChat from December.

AmebaGone (life sciences): This startup is developing natural biocides that attack disease-causing bacteria in potatoes, apples, and other crops. Madison-based AmebaGone claims its bio-control products behave similarly to human immune cells that treat infections in people.

Shockray Self-Defense (advanced manufacturing): Oak Creek-based startup working to commercialize a combination of an electrical stun gun and pepper-spray pistol that police and others would use to subdue suspected criminals.

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