At Princeton, the Entrepreneurial Path of a Sustainable Energy Venture

Thursday, Dec 14, 2017
by Nuss Visatemongkolchai '18

The Tiger Entrepreneur Award, given annually to up to four individuals or teams of undergraduate students, graduate students, or early career alumni, celebrates the value of entrepreneurship and innovation across the Princeton community. Inaugural winners demonstrate excellence in entrepreneurship across a variety of industries, and through BoxPower, a California-based sustainable energy startup founded by two University alumni, we examine what it means to tackle entrepreneurship, the Princeton way.

BoxPower delivers hybrid containerized energy systems to serve as a sustainable and reliable solution for off-grid areas. Its product, a 20-foot container packed with an integrated wind turbine, solar panel unit, and batteries, generates enough electricity to power five to seven homes. Competitively priced, each unit can be delivered to wherever energy is needed and set up in a day.

Anne-Marie Maman '84 and Aaron Schwartz '17

Anne-Marie Maman (left), Class of 1984 and executive director of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, presents the Tiger Entrepreneur Award to Aaron Schwartz (right), Class of 2017, and Angelo Campus (not pictured), Class of 2016, of BoxPower. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

The company was founded in 2016 by two undergraduate alumni, Angelo Campus, Class of 2016, and Aaron Schwartz, Class of 2017. The idea for containerized renewable energy systems originated from the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which left the island’s energy grid in disarray. The concept then translated into a prototype during Campus’ freshman year at Princeton through the Keller Center’s Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program, in which teams of students solve engineering-based problems within the scope of local community service and not-for-profit organizations, while earning academic credit for their work. Campus played a lead role in the design and construction of the first model, which went on to win first place and $90,000 in funding at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s P3 National Sustainable Design Expo in 2012. 

Following his sophomore year, Campus spent a gap year in Polynesia, where he learned about the challenges facing off-grid communities. Arriving back on campus, he designed an independent major, technological development, which combines principles from civil engineering and anthropology. From this academic framework, he developed ideas for what is now BoxPower, from technical analyses to social ramifications of rural electrification. 

Then came Schwartz, an undergraduate concentrating in operations research and financial engineering (ORFE) with a certificate in applications of computing. The pair met on an Outdoor Action leader training trip, and began working together through “Rethinking Social Profit Ventures,” taught by the Keller Center’s Marty Johnson ‘81, then the James Wei Visiting Professor in Entrepreneurship, and founder/CEO of Isles Inc., a Trenton-based social development nonprofit organization. The seminar explores practical lessons in social entrepreneurship, from sector fundamentals to challenges leaders face. Johnson continues to serve as a mentor as a member of BoxPower’s Advisory Board. “Effective entrepreneurs learn to ponder three diverse questions at the same time: Does this approach/technology work? Is there a financial model? Who are the real customers? At young ages, Angelo and Aaron brought a wealth of capacity to explore and answer these questions.  But they and their team are particularly energized (pun intended) by BoxPower’s potential to impact the world.  What a pleasure it is to watch them grow, personally and professionally,” commented Johnson.

Prior to arriving at Princeton, Schwartz participated in the Bridge Year Program, a tuition-free gap year program that places incoming first-year students in international locations and engages students in University-sponsored service. In Peru, he took part in rural development projects in off-grid communities, and the experience fostered an interest in social entrepreneurship and sustainable development. During his time as an undergraduate, Schwartz served as co-director of the Sustainable Engineering and Development Scholars program and co-president of Princeton’s Engineers Without Borders chapter, which has deployed practical solutions in problem areas in Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Kenya. His faculty-advised senior thesis in the ORFE department focused on stochastic optimization in the design of off-grid energy systems.

Together, Campus and Schwartz took on the journey to commercialize BoxPower. The pair turned to the Keller Center’s eLab Summer Accelerator Program, which matches undergraduate- and graduate-led startups with the University’s entrepreneurial resources, including a co-working space, project funding and a network of mentors.

“Angelo and Aaron are shining examples of how the Keller Center can positively impact students through its broad range of curricular and co-curricular programs. Collectively, the pair has been involved with the Keller Center since 2012, and it’s exciting to see how far they’ve come,” said Stephanie Landers, Keller Center program manager. “With the help of a strong group of mentors, faculty, and advisors, the BoxPower team truly excelled in the eLab Summer Accelerator Program this past year and I’m so proud of their accomplishments. I look forward to seeing what the coming year brings for BoxPower and hope that future eLab teams can draw some inspiration from these talented and hard-working young entrepreneurs.”

BoxPower’s eLab team includes, (left to right): Aaron Schwartz, Class of 2017; Nick Horvath, Class of 2017, Adam Locher, Class of 2017; Doug Wallack, Class of 2016; Alexander Asante, Class of 2019; and Angelo Campus, Class of 2016.

BoxPower’s eLab team includes, (left to right): Aaron Schwartz, Class of 2017; Nick Horvath, Class of 2017, Adam Locher, Class of 2017; Doug Wallack, Class of 2016; Alexander Asante, Class of 2019; and Angelo Campus, Class of 2016. (Photo courtesy of Angelo Campus)

Following Campus’ graduation, BoxPower received further financial support through the Princeton Alumni Entrepreneurs Fund (AEF), which makes investments of up to $100,000 in matching funds, in ventures founded by early-career University alumni. In addition to investment funds, the AEF provides mentorship from experienced alumni and programming to enhance AEF founders’ skills, knowledge and network. In return, recipients help enrich the University’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and serve as mentors to students. Since the fund’s establishment in 2015, AEF has invested in 24 alumni ventures across various industries. “While BoxPower’s technology has amazing profit potential, it is gratifying to see how well the team has been able to balance the need to grow profitably with their social mission to deliver off-grid power to underserved communities. It is evident that they are always considering both the economic bottom line and the social bottom line as they address the opportunities and challenges that they face,” said AEF Program Manager Lauren Bender. 

Earlier this summer, the company donated one of its containerized hybrid renewable energy systems to the Ramapough Lenape Nation’s Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp in Mahwah, NJ. With the campsite disconnected from the power grid, BoxPower’s system is able to provide a stable source of electricity to power the tribe’s key needs, such as security cameras, refrigerators and phones. Mobile and rapidly deployable in under a day, it serves as a clean alternative to diesel generators and solar power systems that can be customized to meet a range of energy demands, generating up to 440 kWh per day per system. (The unit has since been moved to another location in New York by the tribe.)

BoxPower began with a simple vision to bring affordable power to rural off-grid communities worldwide. Currently, the team is exploring opportunities to enter the domestic electrification market, starting with Native Americans living without grid power in the United States, in addition to disaster relief in key zones such as Houston, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Campus and Schwartz imagine BoxPower as being a catalyst for a new way of thinking about energy — as renewable, local and affordable — and for their product to inspire others to work toward a more sustainable energy future.