At the UCI ANTrepreneur Center, we are excited to highlight student entrepreneurs and share their personal experiences, achievements, and brilliant insights. We invite you to join us as we celebrate these ANTrepreneurs and get inspired by their stories.
In June of 2022, UCI ANTrepreneurs Matteo Zamparini (Class of 2021, B.A. Business Administration) and Sina Zhaleh (first-year, Business Administration) were invited to attend the Plug and Play Silicon Valley Summit in Sunnyvale, California. Heralded as a premier event for the Plug and Play network, the Summit welcomed some of the top innovators and business leaders from across the globe to explore the latest trends across several industries.
This exclusive event offered Matteo and Sina the chance to connect with other entrepreneurs and investors, and they used this opportunity to promote their startup Spaceflare. To learn more about their startup and the Plug and Play Summit, Ryan Foland, Interim Director of the ANTrepreneur Center, sat down with Matteo and Sina to discuss Spaceflare’s origin story, recap the event, and much more.
Ryan: Can you tell me more about your business and what it aims to do?
Sina: Spaceflare offers commercial property owners the ability to rent out their unused spaces to energy companies, who will then use this space to deploy clean energy technologies. The property owner benefits from this arrangement because the energy company is responsible for the cost of setting up and operating the technologies—solar panels, battery storage, or EV charging systems—and is also responsible for paying rent to the property owner.
Our business also benefits energy companies because we know that clean energy is the future. Spaceflare offers energy companies that want to invest in clean energy a list of distributed energy projects ready for funding. And, once the project gets going, they generate revenue by selling the clean energy they produce to the local community or the building’s tenants. Naturally, this is great for the community or the tenants as well because they then have access to cheaper clean energy sources.
Spaceflare follows a unique business model. We have built a platform that helps building owners automate energy and property data collection while processing and enabling faster, more competitive rental offer collection from energy companies—within four weeks, landlords are able to collect offers and select an energy company to work with. We don’t ask them for financial or time commitments because the energy companies are the ones handling the deployment of clean energy technologies. So they are free to focus on the real estate business and essentially just get paid to implement clean energy and reach their sustainability goals as well.
Ryan: That’s pretty genius! Take me back to the start: how did you come up with this idea?
Matteo: When I was an undergrad, I was doing research at the UCI Center for Real Estate at the Paul Merage School of Business, and we were working on a paper for the California Public Utilities Commission in collaboration with Southern California Edison. As we analyzed the data, we found that diverse communities faced problems with access to cheaper, cleaner energy sources. If you look across the nation by different zip codes, you can see that clean energy technologies are really only being adopted by wealthy communities because they are very expensive and barely anyone can afford them.
When I looked at the data, I recognized that this was an issue, but I also saw an opportunity to fill this gap. During our research, we also looked at geospatial information and figured out that most cities have a lot of unused space, usually big commercial properties with large parking lots, rooftops, and other building spaces. I realized that if we enabled all these spaces, we could supply clean energy to the local community at a cheaper price without having to rely on individuals or communities to buy the technologies directly.
So this is how the company and our mission to create access to cheaper, cleaner energy for more communities was born.
Ryan: Sina, when did you get involved with Matteo and his idea?
Sina: We actually met at this Taco Night event hosted at the UCI ANTrepreneur Center. I went to meet people and talk about some of the things they were doing, and I met Matteo and we connected over being international students. He told me about his idea, and I liked it. At that time, he was sort of thinking that his idea was going to die because he just didn’t have the time to build it. But I kept thinking about it, and after a few weeks, I texted him and told him that I thought his idea was great and that he should pursue it. And then after that, we just kept working on it every day, and that’s how we got here.
Matteo: Yeah, and I want to add that when we met, I knew right away that Sina was special. Good ideas come around all the time, but few people can actually act on them and make them into something. He was able to inject his vision into the project and understand the long-term plan that we needed to execute to see this through into the market, and that’s what really takes the idea and makes it great. It’s working towards not just selling something to a customer or working for a commission but actually helping them solve a problem. And Sina was able to deliver on that vision.
Ryan: Speaking of delivering a mission and working with customers, does this mean that Spaceflare is open for business?
Matteo: Yes, we currently have an early access program and are finding the best candidates to feed this program. Interested property owners can reach out to us, and we will evaluate whether their property is a good fit for an energy project that will allow them to generate income and decarbonize their assets. After completing our first project in a 120,000-sq-ft manufacturing complex, we partnered with a commercial real estate company to launch clean energy projects at multiple locations in Orange County and enable access to cheaper and cleaner electricity locally.
Ryan: That’s really cool! So since you’re operational and in a place to expand your business, I’m sure that attending the Plug and Play Summit was a great way to get more traction. Tell me about the event and some of the advantages of attending.
Matteo: We got tickets from the Blackstone LaunchPad, which is part of the ANTrepreneur Center’s programming, and we applied for the Center’s Student Startup Fund to help us travel to the event. The Summit was a three-day event that consisted of presentations by keynote speakers, startup pitches, networking sessions, and business case study discussions. We attended several of these activities and had plenty of opportunities to present our business to industry stakeholders one-on-one.
Sina: To add to this, the event brought together business leaders and major corporations from all over the world, so attending gave us a great opportunity to learn from other startups, promote our business, and find potential partnerships and investors. Everyone we talked to had really positive feedback about our company. They liked the fact that we already had such good traction, and they seemed pretty interested in our idea.
Another thing that stood out to me was the speech given by Saeed Amidi, CEO and Founder of Plug and Play. Saeed brought up the CEO of one of their unicorn startups, who shared how he struggled to start his business and develop his product. He then explained how meeting Saeed and getting support from Plug and Play was a turning point that helped him grow and find investors. Essentially, he communicated the idea that you face so many challenges when you’re starting up on your own, but you can always get help from other people, and you should be open to this support. I thought this was helpful because I remember when we first wanted to start Spaceflare, we went to the ANTrepreneur Center and were able to work with advisors and get to the next step. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you never know all the steps in your path, but you can always find your next step. At the end of the day, taking one step at a time and continuing to move forward is the most important thing.
Ryan: You’ve mentioned the ANTrepreneur Center a few times. What role did the Center play in the development of your business? Are there other resources that helped you get to where you are now?
Matteo: When we first went to the ANTrepreneur Center with our idea, we learned about the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Internship that the Center was offering in partnership with UCI Beall Applied Innovation. We decided to do the program and learned about the lean startup method and how we could apply research to a business model that would help real-life customers. Even after the internship, we were always in touch with the ANTrepreneur Center, and we got help from everyone there. We went to them whenever we faced an obstacle and they always offered support, which was especially important in the beginning stages when, as college students, we were lacking the decade-plus industry experience that helps deliver innovative products. Having resources like the ANTrepreneur Center and Beall Applied Innovation not only helped us with financial resources that allowed us to pursue our business, but they also helped us develop critical skills that we needed to approach the business world. They helped us get out there with confidence and enter the market, test our ideas, and work to improve them.
I also want to mention how crucial the ANTrepreneur Center Student Startup Fund was because we were able to use the funding we received through this program to finance our trip to the Plug and Play Summit. We also received a lot of support through Beall Applied Innovation’s Wayfinder Program, I-Corps, workshops, and the New Venture Competition that they host with the Paul Merage School of Business.
Finally, we’re part of the RevHubOC incubator program, which is really helpful because we get to work with innovation advisors who have successfully launched their own businesses. They’ve helped us avoid a lot of common mistakes and develop strategies to approach the market with an effective solution.
Ryan: It’s great to hear that you’ve developed such a strong network of support! Now that we’ve talked about how you got started and what you’re up to now, let’s talk about the future. What’s next for Spaceflare?
Sina: At the Summit, we connected with the CEO of Plug and Play, and he was really interested in the company and asked us to present at their corporate offices in Los Angeles. So we’re probably going to do that big presentation soon. We’re also working on a partnership program with one of the largest real estate development companies in California and we’re trying to expand the scope of our business and the way we deliver value for different stakeholders.
Matteo: We plan to invest in software development efforts to make our platform an all-in-one solution for our customers. We are building features that allow commercial property owners to monitor clean energy projects from different energy providers at multiple locations and also help their current tenants consolidate energy billing payments. In terms of funding, we’re also currently seeking investors to raise a pre-seed round to accelerate the development of the platform.
To learn more about Spaceflare, check out their website or connect on Twitter or LinkedIn. For more information about the UCI ANTrepreneur Center and how it can support your entrepreneurial journey, visit their website or follow them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.