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SBTDC: St. Louis Area Entrepreneur Spreads Solar Energy Applications for a Better America
Tue, 2013-02-26 12:45

In his 2006 State of the Union address, former President George W. Bush called for a new approach to energy development: "Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.

"By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment ... move beyond a petroleum-based economy ... and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past."

Among the millions of American citizens listening to the President's words that January evening was a self-employed goldsmith from the St. Louis area, Jeff Lewis.

Bush's words inspired Lewis. In a post-9/11 world Lewis found the call to energy independence patriotic, as well as challenging and entrepreneurial. He decided to apply his business experience in a new direction, founding MidAmerica Solar LLC in January 2007.

Back in the early part of his career Jeff worked for a jewelry company as a goldsmith at industry tradeshows nationwide. He traveled to virtually every state in the Union and also worked two years in the United Kingdom. At each location during his many years of travel he created new pieces for customers from their old inherited rings and other jewelry.

While traveling he teamed with a jewelry designer from St. Louis, Carrie VanSickle. Their partnership blossomed into something more than business. They married in 1998. After two years abroad the pair quit their jobs, returned to St. Louis and started their own custom jewelry business.

Jeff continued for nearly 10 years to work in his own studio doing commercial jewelry work. But by the summer of 2010, the ground work he laid for his solar energy business during the prior three years was paying off. He landed several jobs yielding $2.3 million in contract work. They included a 15.5-kilowatt solar array for a multi-unit housing project in Farmington, Mo.; a 241-kilowatt solar and 32.5-kilowatt wind energy unit divided among 32 homes and a resource center in the nation's first net-zero energy community, Lexington Farms in Jerseyville, Ill.; parking lot lighting for the city hall of Richmond Heights, a St. Louis suburb; and special application illumination for the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital in Columbia, Mo.

"The VA lighting project allows the hospital to display a specially designed group of 21 U.S. flags 24 hours a day," says Lewis. "It involves three solar arrays, each powering seven lights — one per flag. The project is the first off-grid solar project at any government building in the nation and takes advantage of our patented Twain™ Technology lighting system."

The Twain system is an off-grid electricity approach, combining wind turbine and solar panel-based innovations to generate power stored in a specialized battery. When fully charged the battery can deliver power for up to 120 hours. The special LED bulbs that provide the illumination can last more than 20 years. True to the patriotic inclinations upon which he founded his company, Lewis uses only American-made components in all his projects.

This past year has brought such demand for MAS innovations that Lewis has left his long-time custom-made jewelry career. He now devotes full time to his innovative renewable energy business. One of the factors that helped Lewis arrive at this level of entrepreneurial growth was business counseling from Phil Berger, St. Louis-based MoFAST technology commercialization specialist with the Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers.

"Jeff has used MoFAST and MO SBTDC services over the past year to define his operation and market thrust and as a sounding board for proposals the company is considering," says Berger. "He has plans to expand, add jobs, and increase revenues and margins."

Keys to the discussion were issues related to cash flow and inventory purchases for the manufacture and delivery of products. In addition, Berger introduced Lewis to a professional accounting firm specializing in services for startup technology businesses such as MAS.

The tech counselor also helped Lewis make connections with two groups interested in supporting early-stage tech companies: the Innovate St. Louis Venture Mentoring Service, a networking organization, and StartUp Midwest, an angel investment firm in St. Louis County.

"Phil Berger and the SBTDC have helped me focus my energy and have given me the direction I need to succeed with my entrepreneurial dream," says Lewis. "I plan to build on that and do what I can with my business to help our country move forward in these demanding times."