By Maria Gallucci for Mashable
The late, great Prince quietly funded solar energy startups before he died last year, and now that funding could help young clean-tech firms navigate the turbulent Trump era.
The pop musician anonymously invested around $250,000 in Powerhouse, a rare for-profit incubator and accelerator that links solar entrepreneurs with investors, Bloomberg reportedon Tuesday.
The Oakland, California-based incubator — and efforts like it — could give renewable energy innovations a crucial leg-up at a time when President Trump is seeking to slash funds for early-stage energy projects through the U.S. Department of Energy.
Trump's proposed 2018 budget would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an initiative to support cutting-edge energy technologies. That program was funded to the tune of about $291 million that was enacted in fiscal year 2016.
Funding for the department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would shrink by 70 percent, to $636 million, compared to the enacted level during the previous year. Trump also wants to scrap the department's clean energy and auto loan programs, which backed Elon Musk's Tesla in 2009.
Prince-backed Powerhouse is also providing key funding just as venture capital investors, such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, are shifting away from the clean-tech sector.
Prince's secret solar funding wasn't his only anonymous act of philanthropy. He also supported #YesWeCode, an organization that educations urban youth on technology, and helped to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement. The musician also donated to Green for All, an organization co-founded by community activist Van Jones in Oakland.
Prince joined the solar startup space after a 2011 conversation with Jones, who later became a green-jobs adviser to former President Obama and is now a commentator on CNN.
"He [Prince] asked, 'If I have a quarter-million dollars, what can I do with it?'" Jones told Bloomberg. "My wife said he should put solar panels all over Oakland."
IMAGE: ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES
With a grant from Prince, Jones brought in Solar Mosaic founder Billy Parish, who moved his rookie crowdfunding platform from Arizona to Oakland. There, Parish met Emily Kirsch, who was a green jobs campaigner at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the nonprofit that Jones co-founded. Kirsch worked with Solar Mosaic on its first four projects before co-founding Powerhouse.
So far, the incubator has helped 43 start-ups get on their feet, including firms like Avalon Battery, which makes energy storage systems with advanced rechargeable batteries; Mosaic, which provides loans for homeowners to install solar panels; and Solar Analytics, which offers energy data and analysis for residential solar owners.
Powerhouse startups have since generated $52 million in revenue, raised $287 million in capital, employed nearly 390 people, and have collectively led to the installation of 242 megawatts of solar power in the U.S. and abroad, according to the company's website.
Moreover, the incubator has helped make Oakland a hive for clean-tech finance, according to Bloomberg. Thirteen companies and six industry organizations are all working near Powerhouse's offices across the bay from San Francisco.
Prince's involvement in the fledgling solar project ended in April 2016, when he died from an accidental fentanyl overdose at age 57. Prince wanted his involvement to remain anonymous, Jones said.
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Photo credit: ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES