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  • Writer's pictureAngina Herrmann

Nicolas Weber: “We want to build for real life, not for the lab”

We can produce solar energy without changing the landscape or casting a shadow on growing crops, promises Voltiris CEO and Co-Founder Nicolas Weber. His fast-growing startup creates solar panels for greenhouses, helping growers reduce their carbon footprint and become more energy independent.

Nicolas Weber, Voltiris CEO and Co-Founder
Nicolas Weber, Voltiris CEO and Co-Founder

Alpine solar energy was a hot topic in Switzerland in 2023. All those elevated cliffs and meadows are perfect for massive solar parks that turn underutilized photons into energy, some envisioned. Others feared national landscapes destroyed by rows of glistening panels and already endangered mountain fauna robbed of their natural habitat. As the Swiss canton of Valais voted against large solar farms in their mountains, a popular argument was that we should utilize existing infrastructure surfaces before coating pristine scenery with our panels.

Utilizing existing infrastructure is one of our key benefits, says Nicolas Weber, CEO and co-founder of the Lausanne-based solar energy company Voltiris. Their panels are developed to be used inside agricultural greenhouses, which already take up swathes of sunny surfaces around the world. At first glance, this seems problematic: the sunlight in greenhouses is used to grow crops, so hiding the plants under solar panels would defeat the purpose. Yet, while crops need light to grow, they don’t need all the colors in the spectrum. Giving plants only selected wavelengths of sunlight is enough – in fact, initial test results indicate that filtering out certain wavelengths might even be beneficial for crop health. What is not needed for photosynthesis can be used for energy.

This technology is called spectral filtering. Voltiris has patented its use in solar energy production, but the principle itself is not new, Nicolas explains. We don’t get cooked inside airports and other large, glass-covered spaces, for example, because the glass roofs filter out infrared. “And my eyeglasses filter out blue light”, he adds.

“Greenhouse growers are more innovative than many expect”

While society gets to enjoy green energy produced within existing infrastructure, agriculture profits from becoming more energy independent with the Voltiris solution. Greenhouses require a lot of energy to operate, and energy is becoming increasingly expensive. Furthermore, energy prices are highly volatile, which makes growers vulnerable to events that take place thousands of kilometers away. Utilizing solar energy also helps growers reduce their carbon footprint – which is something that governments, retailers and consumers expect, Nicolas points out.

The Voltiris team is currently demonstrating their technology through trials with growers and research centers, and Nicolas says they’ve already seen a lot of interest among European greenhouse growers. Going out into the field – literally – has allowed Nicolas and his colleagues to challenge some common preconceptions about farmers. Far from conservative, growers have turned out to be very innovative and eager to test new ideas. Nicolas has also been impressed by the depth of knowledge growers have of both their crops and related fields, such as energy production. Voltiris has learned a lot from the hard questions growers have asked, Nicolas admits.

Partnering with growers during product development is important. Nicolas declares that he doesn’t want to build a prototype for the school lab; he wants to create something that is used out in the real world. Understanding optics on the whiteboard is all good and well, but making it practical and economical is a whole other story.

Voltiris has tested their technology in a dozen projects, focusing on three dimensions: the impact of the panels on different types of crops in various geographies, the actual energy output, and the mechanical reliability of the innovation. They have now successfully demonstrated that spectral filtering doesn’t harm the crops and that the projects are financially attractive thanks to the significant energy output . “After progressively expanding the scope of our projects throughout the year, the primary objective now is to continue this trajectory of scaling up", Nicolas explains.

Voltiris  solar panels inside a greenhouse
Voltiris solar panels in action

"How we distribute technologies within society will define the world 10 years from now"

2023 was a big year for Voltiris. Thanks to a successful financing round in late 2022, the company was able to run their projects and hire more talent. At the start of 2023, Voltiris consisted of three co-founders: Nicolas Weber, Dominik Blaser, and Jonas Roch. Now Voltiris has a workforce equivalent of 11-12 full-time employees.

While Dominik and Jonas bring the scientific and technical background, Nicolas comes with a Management and Strategy degree from the London School of Economics and six years of work experience at Boston Consulting Group. Even during his years as a consultant, Nicolas says he was always interested in venturing. He worked in the consulting firm's digital venture group, and at one point he took a sabbatical to help Colombian entrepreneurs scale up their businesses.

When choosing his own direction, Nicolas figured climate change is likely the biggest challenge humanity will face in the next few years. “I wanted to be able to say that I did my best to act”, he describes. Ten years from now, Nicolas believes we will have developed many more technological solutions to battle climate change. Yet simply having the technology will not save us; how we distribute those advancements within the society will make a great difference. If we don’t pay attention to fair distribution of technologies, Nicolas sees social tensions in the cards.

Nicolas has noticed he is not the only consultant dreaming of a venture with a purpose: many former colleagues have admitted to considering a similar career shift. Nicolas has one piece of advice for them all: take the jump. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of standing inside a greenhouse, under the pink light of a Voltiris solar panel, he describes. That feeling of accomplishment is something Nicolas hopes many more of us get to experience.

This article is partially based on this podcast episode.



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