Durham-based Optimal Solar Takes Top Prize at Black Founders Exchange

As Reginald Parker stood—giant check in hand—on the stage at American Underground, the president and founder of the Durham-based company Optimal Solar felt a wave of emotions overwhelm him.

Optimal Solar’s Reginald Parker pitches to the three judges during the Black Founders Exchange’s demo day on Friday.

“I’m not only excited,” he said, “I’m ecstatic, I’m happy and I’m appreciative.”

As winner of the pitch contest that concluded the Black Founders Exchange Program at American Underground on Friday, Parker was awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to the San Francisco Bay Area to meet potential investors, as well as an offer to join venture capital firm Backstage Capital’s three-month incubator program.

The Black Founders Exchange Program, sponsored by Google for Entrepreneurs, brought together 10 minority-led companies for a week-long entrepreneurial crash course where they connected with industry experts as well as investors.

During the pitch contest, the founders could only use three slides over three minutes to pitch their companies to the three judges, all of whom were African-American women, including two VC executives.

The 10 companies who presented on Friday were from all over the country, but Parker said the fact that a local company won is “a validation of just how strong the Durham community is.”

Besides Optimal Solar, another two of the participating companies were from the Triangle: Coworks, which produces a management software for co-working spaces and is based out of Raleigh; and Spa Utopia, a mobile luxury spa service based in Durham.

Optimal Solar produces the VIA solar module, a solar energy technology that Parker said is more efficient and 30 percent less expensive than existing modules. Parker said his product differs from competitors because it separates visible light and infrared light into chips that convert it into energy.

Besides having a more efficient product, Parker also said his company is negotiating a deal with the City of Atlanta that could yield $2 million in profit for Optimal Solar when the project is completed, hopefully by the end of 2019.

For Brittany Davis, one of the judges and Director of Deal Flow at Los Angeles-based Backstage Capital, Parker’s expertise in solar energy along with the possibility of such a big contract show why he was the clear winner on Friday.

“If you have an innovative technology within solar—I think there’s still people looking to optimize the amount of energy created and cost savings,” she said. “There’s just a huge opportunity for utilities to get involved.”

Optimal Solar is looking to grow, and Parker hopes to raise $500,000 to scale up his manufacturing process, obtain certifications and hire new employees.

Doug Speight, executive director of American Underground, said he hopes every company in the Black Founders Exchange Program continues to grow.

“I want to continue to see them gain traction,” said Speight, “whether that be raising capital, growing revenue, growing their teams or reaching out to more users and customers.”