Sol Design Lab grows artistic solar charging station business

Sol Design LabWhen Beth Ferguson was a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin a few years ago, she couldn’t park her electric bike anywhere.

She tried plugging it in outside of the school and was warned to get it out of the way. She tried putting it in bike racks and was warned to get her “gas-powered” bike out of the rack.

That’s what inspired the ecological design student to develop a clever and attractive solar-powered charging station specifically for electric bicycles and mobile electronics.

Now, three and a half years after graduating, her idea has blossomed into a business – Sol Design Lab.

Based in California, she and her team have installed their SolarPump stations in five permanent locations. They’re working on the sixth and have demonstrated it at music festivals all over the country.

“We probably have not followed the normal rules for starting a business,” she said. “Our style has been just to do it.”

She started with some solar panels and a couple old gas pumps from the 1950s and brightened them up. She worked with an engineer and designed the first solar pump station in 2009. She demonstrated it at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin and had enough success and support there to begin promoting the idea at music festivals all over the country.

“That’s really where people find out about us and get excited about it,” she said.

She’s had no advertising budget and hasn’t marketed other than attending music festivals.

But the festivals have led to permanent installations in Amherst and Cape Cod, Mass., San Francisco and Austin. The one in San Francisco is situated outside of an electric bicycle shop.

Most of the pumps are designed using retro gas pumps, she said. But there is one that uses a telephone booth and the one in Cape Cod is shaped like a turtle and outfitted with hexagonal solar panel.

Aside from providing outdoor charging stations for bikes and mobile electronics, Ferguson said the stations have proven to be assets in emergencies. An unexpected snowstorm in Massachusetts knocked out power lines and college students started using the stations to charge up their cell phones.

The business is picking up momentum, Ferguson said. And she’s started bringing on more brain power and is working with a fabrication plant in San Jose.