Sasin’s Demystified Podcast Series with Jeffrey Char

24 Oct 2023
Jeffrey Char Champions Clean Energy Solutions and Entrepreneurial Mentorship to Tackle Energy Poverty Frustrated with the complexities and high costs of installing solar panels, Jeffrey Char started his own company in Japan, TRENDE, a business focused on renewable energy solutions. “It was some hot summer day and I was using a lot of power from the grid to cool the house down. And I just thought, there’s got to be a better way,” said Char. His experience with solar panels made him realize the need for more straightforward and accessible options for consumers, viewing it as a way to empower individuals and communities with more control over their energy sources. Char teaches Entrepreneurial Management at Sasin School of Management, often telling his students not to create startups based solely on clever ideas but to start a business based on real problems that need solving. Char believes that frustration at problems and the hunger to solve them is what makes an entrepreneur. However, Char initially encountered challenges in implementing sustainable energy services and instead recruited friends to help make it a reality. This collaborative effort eventually led to the formation of TRENDE in Japan, where Char became the first customer. He highlighted the significance of working with like-minded individuals passionate about solving a common problem, emphasizing that their shared dedication makes the journey more enjoyable and their commitment more resilient.

“Lesson number one, find out what you are pissed off about. Lesson number two is to find other people who are pissed off at the same thing. I mean, other people who share the passion to solve that problem, those are the best people to work with. They’re not joining because of a paycheck. So, when the going gets tough, which it will, they’re less likely to give up.”- Jeffrey Char, Co-founder and CEO of SOGO Energy

As a Director of Corporate Venture Capital in Tokyo Electric and Power Company (TEPCO), investing in and partnering with energy-related ventures, his unique position led him to identify opportunities for innovation. TEPCO supported his initiative at TRENDE by becoming the largest shareholder in the company. Additional investors, including Idemitsu, Dubai Electric and Water Authority, and Itochu, have since joined the venture. Initially, TRENDE began as an energy retailing business, acquiring a retail license to provide power to customers and bill them for their usage. They later initiated a project where they offered customers the opportunity to use their rooftops for solar panel installations at TRENDE’s expense, providing renewable energy during the day and relying on the grid at night. However, the focus is now shifting towards emphasizing solar power and introducing battery storage options to reduce reliance on the grid during nighttime hours. Char is acutely aware of his privileged background, the stark contrast between the energy access he has enjoyed in the U.S. and Japan, and the lack of such basic amenities in many other locations. This awareness led him to create SOGO Energy in Singapore to provide distributed utility services to areas with energy poverty. SOGO’s mission is to provide sustainable solutions for those most affected by the climate crisis and limited means to address the issue. “I think deep down it’s almost like a moral imperative,” he said. “It’s a responsibility other people hopefully will feel and share this kind of responsibility to help out and to lend a helping hand to get things started and to try to right the wrongs.” He emphasized the need for long-term, sustainable approaches to address energy poverty by actively participating in building solutions that can make a lasting impact, such as generating and distributing renewable energy at the local level. Char addressed energy poverty in Cambodia where the government monopolies on energy made it challenging to sell electricity, especially in areas where demand is low. Attempting to deliver power to these remote regions results in high costs relative to the limited demand, making it an unprofitable and unsustainable venture. This problem led the team to explore alternative solutions, and they found an opportunity in irrigation systems. Many farmers in these areas rely on diesel-powered pumps to extract water from rivers or boreholes, which is both costly and environmentally unfriendly. The team identified an opportunity to replace these diesel pumps with solar-powered water pumps, a cleaner and more cost-effective solution. They partnered with local businesses selling solar water pumps, which were powered by one or two panels. However, this approach still required farmers to make a significant upfront investment, which limited its accessibility and adoption. Drawing from their experience in Japan, where high initial costs deterred homeowners from adopting renewable energy, they devised a new strategy. Instead of selling the infrastructure to farmers, they planned to create centralized pumping stations powered by solar energy. Farmers would purchase water as a service, removing the need for them to invest in expensive equipment upfront. This approach aims to reduce financial risks for the farmers and increase the accessibility of solar-powered irrigation. They initiated two pilot projects in Cambodia, working with local partners to troubleshoot technical issues and fine-tune the business model. The long-term vision is to expand this concept, creating a network of solar-powered water irrigation stations available to farmers on a broader scale. Char believes that energy can replace and decarbonize various sectors, including agriculture and construction, leading to significant opportunities worldwide. While renewable energy has the potential for broad distribution, it is currently seen as more of an industrial or business-to-business product rather than a consumer product. Similar to industries like ride-sharing (Uber), where consumers actively participate as drivers to defray costs, people can also share energy. For example, an individual with excess solar power generated on their rooftop could benefit their neighbors without solar panels. This sharing of energy resources can be more effective in remote or urban communities, reducing the need for extensive transmission infrastructure. Tomizawa mentions the rapid progress in renewable energy, with projections suggesting that it will become the largest source of global electricity generation by 2025, surpassing coal and natural gas. In response to Tomizawa’s question, Char acknowledges that while he doesn’t expect energy to be entirely free in the near future, there is a significant trend of cost reduction in the renewable energy sector. He emphasizes that despite these cost reductions, the massive global energy infrastructure transformation requires substantial capital investments. Char highlights that the cost of producing energy per kilowatt continues to decline, both on the supply and demand sides of energy. On the demand side, he pointed out that renewable energy is not just replacing existing electricity production; it is also accommodating new uses of electricity, such as electric vehicles and cryptocurrency mining. This expanding demand for electricity presents a promising prospect for renewables. He likened the situation to the evolution of telecommunication technology, where each new generation was expected to offer improved features and capacity. Char is also a mentor to business leaders. One person he mentored is Vitavin “Vin” Ittipanuvat, a venture capitalist known for his patience and willingness to take risks. Vitavin is a young engineer who completed his undergraduate studies at Chulalongkorn University and pursued a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Tokyo. Around 12-13 years ago, Vitavin interned with Char and gained experience by working at a consulting firm before making a significant career shift into venture capitalism. “By mentoring him many years ago, he then paid it forward and helped to mentor a whole generation of startup companies and entrepreneurs that have gone on to become successful here in Thailand,” said Char. Among many inspiring people he worked with, Char mentioned Dr. Marcy Wilder, an American scientist in Japan specializing in innovative technologies for sustainable shrimp production. Her work aims to reduce the environmental impact of shrimp farming while increasing productivity. Her focus on making shrimp production more sustainable aligns with the growing demand for eco-friendly food sources. His other mentee is Sothea Touch, a Cambodian student who has since joined Char at SOGO and is leading operations in Cambodia. His problem-solving mindset and empathy for understanding the farmers’ pain points have been instrumental in SOGO’s connecting with local communities and advancing the company’s mission. He believes that these qualities make successful entrepreneurs who create a positive impact on their communities and beyond. For more information about Sasin Demystified Programs, CLICK HERE.  
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