The real world is a great teacher, making us learn by doing instead of reading, thus shaping our interests and career much before our formal education begins !

Neel Tamhane, our next pathbreaker, Solar Strategy Lead at SPACE10 (IKEA’s global research and design lab), researches opportunities to identify how solar energy can become a key enabler for communities with limited means to improve their everyday life at home.

Neel talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about growing up in alternative learning schools that were closer to nature and being exposed to practical aspects of environmental education at an early age which got him interested in sustainability.

For students, spend as much time as you can working on tangible projects with visible outcomes that will show you the path to your future !

Neel, Your background?

I grew up in about 9 states and 40 houses around India. My parents were school teachers in alternative schools that were based on Jiddu Krishnamurti’s philosophies. A lot of the learning at these schools was by doing. So, at an early age, I was tinkering with a lot of practical, hands-on projects. Most of these schools were closer to nature. We had lakes, hills, forests and plenty of wild animals on the campus with whom we co-existed. And this was also where I was first exposed to environmental education. In one school for instance, I learnt how to build my own solar cooker. We had a biogas plant in another, that we saw operate in our community kitchen. We also enjoyed getting our hands dirty with vermicomposting and organic farming along with some really awesome passionate teachers that introduced us to some amazing innovators, ideas and stories that got me very interested in sustainability. 

I was also an avid sports person, playing all the sports I possibly could right from cricket to football and table tennis to basketball. I also learnt to play the Mandolin in my teens and played for an orchestra in school. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Though I was keen on studying environmental science, sadly there weren’t many universities teaching it. So instead, I happened to come across an engineering course on Solar and Alternative Energy at Amity University. I visited the campus for the interview and also realised that the department had a heavy leaning towards research and material science, as the director of the institute had worked on the solar panels that were installed on Aryabhatta. The 4 year course gradually inched towards more specific current research themes spanning semiconductor physics, material science to dye sensitised solar cells. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Early on, from my engineering years, I was very keen on getting more hands on exposure and working on tangible projects. My father, who also had majored in Physics previously, nudged me towards some fascinating social enterprises, startups and organisations that were actively supporting young minds such as the Jagriti Yatra and Shodhyatra from the Honey Bee Network. I ended up spending a lot of my summer and winter breaks traveling, working and learning from these different organisations.

I spent a summer hopping on a truck carrying fodder & fertilizers to a rural village in Western Bihar and a winter traveling for 15 days around India on an 8,000 kms train journey meeting 12 prominent social entrepreneurs of India along with 500 other young people like myself. Often these different networks and internships led to more connections and projects. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I started working on a project with the Rockefeller Foundation aiming to build 1,000 mini-grids in some of the most energy deprived states in India in 2015, when around 300 million people still lacked access to electricity at home. The project gave me the opportunity to travel extensively, talking to policymakers, utility providers, substation operators and people that were dealing with the systems everyday, basically the entire spectrum in terms of all the stakeholders involved. Some of the early leaders I worked with became mentors, which led to me exploring a lot of active conversations in the sector internationally which subsequently led me to discovering SOLshare, a young startup in Bangladesh where three German founders were building the world’s first peer-to-peer energy trading platform. The urge to work “hands-on” in designing a novel energy system which could be the future of energy systems around the world drew me to to Bangladesh for the next few years. Spending the subsequent 3.5 years designing, testing, iterating and building more technology solutions along with suitable business models allowed me to learn and grow very quickly. The leadership at SOLshare was immensely supportive and gave me ample opportunity to thrive and lead the product development. Hearing about some of my work and experience in the energy access space, SPACE10, IKEA’s research and design lab invited me to engage and join them to design similar relevant solutions for not just South Asia but more countries in the Global South. I am currently leading research explorations and identifying opportunities around how solar energy can become a key enabler for communities with limited means to improve their everyday life at home around the world.

How did you get your first break?

I was fairly curious and keen on trying out different roles with different kinds of organisations. I was also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on techno-commercial assessments, system design, financial modeling, policy research, survey design, field research, operations management and product management. My first internship was with Husk Power Systems, a homegrown social enterprise in Bihar that had indigenously designed a biomass gasification system that was providing energy access to villages in North India. I subsequently worked with Azure Power, a leading solar power producer in India. I had the opportunity to work under the wing of their Senior Vice President of R&D, working across teams to learn the tricks of the trade first hand from some of the best at the job and designing a novel mini-grid that they intended to pilot. I consistently supplemented the practical knowledge with an array of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) which was a relatively new phenomena then. Platforms like EdX and Coursera had some fantastic courses on energy science and economics from some of the best universities around the world. During the semester I would often reach out to conferences and events to attend, network and connect with different stakeholders to learn, understand and follow where the sector was heading in terms of innovations and businesses. Most importantly, I consistently had supportive leaders and mentors. I found my first job through a partner I worked with at Azure Power. Abishek, had an inspiring story of having studied energy engineering abroad and then choosing to move to Kalahandi, one of the most economically backward districts of India to design a micro-hydro project for a tribal village, clearly reminiscent of a Bollywood movie. I really enjoyed growing up. He taught me a lot about how to navigate the real world by leveraging theoretical knowledge, but more importantly, how to bridge the worlds of engineering and economics to communicate research effectively. Following which, I also worked with Sebastian, Daniel Hannes and Aziza Sultana Mukti (ME SOLshare), who not only gave me tremendous opportunities to test out different ideas but also questioned, critiqued and guided me to help build the products and platforms that we built together. So, early practical experience was key for me along with finding mentors and leaders that consistently created new opportunities to learn and grow.   

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: While building energy access systems and projects, we were often building solutions that were in direct competition with the national grid in various geographies. To shift away from that, we extensively engaged with policy makers, energy utilities and other relevant stakeholders to create open dialogue to co-create a new future for energy transitions together.

Challenge 2: Designing decentralised renewable energy systems that would have innately higher prices than grossly subsidised coal based energy was difficult to sell to investors since it seemed like the clean energy provided was more expensive. We tried to bridge the conversation around access to reliable energy and the need to transition to cleaner energy fuels to make the case for the model. It took a while to convince investors, but at SOLshare, we raised our last round primarily through major utilities in the global North that are building more sustainable grids already. They were inclined to incorporate learnings from India and Bangladesh to adapt it to their own contexts.

Challenge 3: Designing solutions that have a high capital cost for people with limited resources to pay for it was also a consistent challenge. We would often partner with experienced micro financial institutions that had an extensive network and active presence in the villages to create financial instruments that enabled people to buy and own their own energy systems in Bangladesh.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am currently the Solar Strategy Lead at SPACE10 – IKEA’s global research and design lab.

I am leading research explorations and identifying opportunities around how solar energy can become a key enabler for communities with limited means to improve their everyday life at home.

What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills?

My role is a fairly unique profile as my work is a blend of business, design and technical expertise which is contextual to the domain. I am also responsible for building partnerships and stakeholder management to realise the vision behind our projects. I built the skills required for the role over time working in different roles and learning by doing. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day depends on the stage of the projects, partners we are working with and the time of the year. Ideally, I would spend more of my time on the ground as I did in the past, but until the pandemic permits we are relying on other alternatives.

What is it you love about this job? 

I love that we have been able to leverage some of my previous knowledge, experience and frustrations with existing products in the market to frame new research and design explorations that could potentially benefit a lot of people on the planet. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Our work is aimed to help create a better everyday life at home for people and the planet. This entails researching and designing tangible solutions that address needs and aspirations of people living around the world, but especially in the Global South. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

My work at SOLshare building peer-to-peer energy trading platforms was especially memorable. Amongst the different 70+ grids installed, the one I recall most vividly was on an island is the sea in the South of Bangladesh. We set up a grid in a local market place called Rangabali. Most of the people on the island were associated with watermelon trading in some way or the other. 

In the market, I met Millon bhai, who had a small fruit shop where he made some lip-smacking fruit chats. However, he had to shut his shop at sunset every day because he couldn’t afford a solar system or had to spend Rs 250 every month on kerosene.

Our product was originally designed for users with solar systems, but meeting people like Millon bhai made me realize that we needed to customize our product to meet their needs as well. We designed a solution that enabled users without solar systems to connect to the grid as well while spending only Rs 100 to run a bulb every month. Spending considerable time with the people we work for has enabled me to gain a lot of insight into the problems our users face and has helped us cocreate, build and design more effective solutions for them, with them.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Spend as much time as you can on working on tangible projects with visible outcomes. Try not to worry too much about salary packages and placements early on. Work with multiple organisations, small and big, early in your career to find your calling. Seek to pave your own path instead of following the norm, try to do something different to carve out your own niche. 

Future Plans?

I am working on a few key passion projects that I hope can see the light of day soon. I am also eager to explore more academic pursuits to broaden the horizon and learn about subjects, themes and topics I have been curious about.