Cambridge alumni Harald Överholm is the CEO and co-founder of Alight, the leading company in solar-as-a-service within the Nordic region. Alongside running a successful company, Harald has been an advisor to WWF, the Swedish government and the Stockholm Environment Institute, as well as a former board member of Swedish Solar Energy. The Cambridge Engineer spoke to Harald about his range of experiences, from founding his company to his background as a venture capitalist.
Let’s start at the beginning of your career. Why did you decide to complete your PhD at Cambridge? Did you enjoy your time there?
By chance I got to know Elizabeth Garnsey, who worked at the Institute for Manufacturing and shared my interest in low-carbon technology. We jointly designed and set up a PhD position to fit the research interest and she became my supervisor – and a great one at that. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Cambridge, the colleagues at the IfM and my college environment at Churchill. There was such an amazing concentration of spirited and focused people, that really helped me and inspired me in my work.
You studied engineering, but if you had to have picked a different degree, what would you have chosen?
Biology! I once met someone who had studied “Big cats” for his bachelor, including spending a half-year tracking tigers as an internship. That just struck me as the most amazing thing to do. Still haven’t discarded the idea entirely. Biodiversity is of course the one defining topic of our generation – the negative impact of climate change is just a subset of the overarching biodiversity crisis.
When did you start to consider the idea of starting your own business? Did you ever think about staying in academic research?
I had been an employee in entrepreneurial ventures before doing my PhD, and the climate at the IfM was very entrepreneur friendly, so it felt like a natural transition to use the findings from my PhD as a roadmap to set up my own business afterwards. I did briefly consider doing a post doc, but then the founding team for Alight started to come together and it became apparent that the timing was fortuitous to get going – and I haven’t looked back since. That said, I did spend some time during the years after my PhD to participate in papers and other forums to pass on some of my research findings, and I still try to make time to help out whenever I can in research that is close to my area.
So with the founding coming together, how confident were you that you had a marketable idea? Was there ever a point where you didn’t think the company was going to make it?
The toughest time is arguable the first months, when you’re committing full time to the idea, but basically without having anything in place. So yes, the first year had its fair share of doubt and also minor pivots in terms of what we were actually going to do. Then once you have some funding and your first customers in place, I feel that you are generally too busy to entertain any doubts – you need to get stuff done!
Did you take any skills from your PhD into founding a company?
Long-term focus, and the idea that you actually can break new ground – no one can tell you beforehand if it will work out or not, you simply have to take the plunge based on your own intuition.
What are your future plans for Alight? Are you marketing to other European countries?
We’re very focused on being a market leader in our niche – solar power purchase agreements to corporates – across the EU. Much of our marketing is simply about reaching out in many forums to tell our story, and talk about the purpose of what we do and how passionate we are for this market to grow, and how this product create positive value for both customers and the world. That is a positive and important story, and it carries our message much better than any paid or planned marketing would do.
You have had such a varied career, what would you say is the most memorable project/company you worked on? Do you have any big career regrets?
When we pitched, won the contract for, and subsequently built the first large solar park in Sweden – entirely without subsidies. It was one of those projects that no one thought could happen, not in Sweden at least, and not at the time when it did. But we made it happen. The solar park is in place now, you can see it from the main cross-country highway, and it’s simply an amazing symbol to me of how a crazy vision can turn into a major, tangible project.
One last business focused question, what is one thing you wish you had known before co-founding Alight?
You know much less than you think – you’re supposed to keep learning stuff constantly! I think I actually did know that, theoretically at least. But I should have emphasised it even more to myself. Get help, learn new stuff, improve relentlessly and constantly. You’re not supposed to have it all figured out magically by yourself. But you are supposed to work hard to get the new skills you need in place quickly.
Looking at more current events, obviously the one of the big stories at the moment is Coronavirus. Has the pandemic affected your work at all?
It’s had a somewhat positive impact in terms of general market sentiment. I feel that green energy, which is what we sell, has become even more timely in the eyes of many customers than it was before the pandemic. There is this general “build back better” sentiment that I think is excellent in terms of turning this global disruption into a force of positive change
With the impact of climate change becoming more and more visible, the need for renewable energy sources is increasing – when do you think the world will manage to switch to 100% renewable energy?
Sooner than we think (and sooner than major energy companies say). It will be a very disruptive process, from a market point of view, and a lot of those who talk about 2050 net zero goals today may find themselves sidelined. Of course that is a great thing. We don’t have until 2050 to stop fossil fuels. Cost reductions, digitalization and smart storage is all coming together to provide us with the means to create a 100% solar, wind and battery based system within 10 years through the existing market mechanisms. Let’s get it done.
And finally – what is the best piece of advice someone else has given you?
Simply focus on understanding what your next bottleneck is, and then put all effort into removing that bottleneck. Then repeat. That advice came from Pete Rive (founder of SolarCity, now Tesla Energy) many years ago, and for some reason I feel like I’m still figuring out exactly how to apply it. It’s a very powerful way to drive organizational speed.
If you’d like to find out more about Harald’s company, check out their website below: