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Close-up: Robert Noble

‘Ecopreneur,’ green innovator

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Better known as the founder of Envision Solar, the company behind the signature solar “trees” we see popping up in parking lots, Robert Noble is a man with many irons in the fire.

A trained environmental architect and early adaptor of sustainable technology, he got the idea for creating solar panels that would function like car ports, shading the vehicle while being a source of electricity.

This led to the birth of Envision Solar in 2006. Noble sold his interest in Tucker Sadler, the architectural firm he was with, to concentrate on making aesthetically appealing solar products that would enhance the curb appeal and sustainability score for commercial clients.

Aside from Solar Tree and Solar Grove, its portfolio of products also includes SmartTree -- a charging station and canopy for electric vehicles, and a recently released tracking system that can keep reorienting the solar panels in the parking lot to track the sun.

Robert Noble, chairman and founder of Noble Environmental Technologies, the umbrella for Envision Solar.

A man with many viable ideas vying to become reality, Noble founded Noble Environmental Technologies at the same time.

This company focuses on ECOR, a green composite corrugated panel made from waste material that can be used to make a wide variety of products, from furniture to wall panels to signage.

Once Envision got off to a start, Noble focused on refining the technology and applications for ECOR and will set up the first factory, possibly in downtown San Diego, very soon.

The Daily Transcript caught up with him in Malaysia, where he was attending a reunion with fellow entrepreneurs who had attended the Harvard Business School’s owner/entrepreneur MBA program in 1999.

Noble also attended Harvard’s school of design for his masters in architecture, apart from Cambridge, University of California, Berkeley and UCSD for undergraduate work.

His connections have played a big part in advancing his ventures and securing big name clients such as Kyocera, General Motors and Dell Computers.

“Our projects, with their high aesthetics, have won us a lot of recognition and media attention. It’s a very exciting time,” Noble said.

For all the press Envision has generated, it’s still a small company with just 10 employees. That’s because it has outsourced a lot of work to contractors.

The company filed an IPO (Initial Public Offering) last year, but struggled financially before turning its first profit of about $98,000 on revenues of $381,000 in the second quarter of this year.

“We had some tough times but we are very strong now. The downturn affected us greatly, because our projects were put on permanent hold,” said Noble, adding that what made it survive was, “Pure tenacity. Plus, our brand is strong.”

It has projects in Michigan, Pennsylvania and even Asia. Manufacturing operations are located in Hughson, a small town in the Central Valley, near Modesto, Calif.

He has stepped back from the CEO post and is now executive chairman of Envision, which has allowed him to concentrate on ECOR.

He focuses exclusively on mission-driven projects with environmental purposes and social benefits.

He said three aspects are at the core of every venture he undertakes: sustainability, social responsibility and aesthetic design.

“I find myself only interested in business or products that include the troika (trio). I don’t want to spend time just making money, I’d rather build enterprises that have social benefits.”

He insisted it is possible to not give in to commercial pressure and to stick with the goal. But that kind of zeal comes at a price.

“You give up things. A lot of times money, opportunities.”

He gave the example of someone he admires a lot, award-winning architect Frank Gehry, whose buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles have become tourist attractions.

Gehry had to make hard choices when he decided to stick with projects that satisfied his aesthetics, as opposed to other compulsions. Noble recalled being in similar situations, when he passed up on purely commercial projects in favor of his troika of values.

Noble also cited the late Steve Jobs, former Apple CEO. “He stuck to his vision even though there were a lot of risks associated with it, his convictions were strong.”

The array of potential opportunities for ECOR has him energized. While it’s taken some time to refine, he believes it has tremendous potential.

“ECOR is a liberating product. A panel technology that allows designers to curve it, shape it, make it lighter or heavier. It’s recyclable, reusable and has a low carbon footprint.”

If the new factory is located downtown in East Village, he said he would be able to source 100 percent of the raw material from within a mile’s radius.

ECOR is made of waste paper, old newsprint, corrugated cardboard and white office waste.

He would be able to procure such material from the city, the port and other government agencies downtown and sell the panels back to them.

“The opportunity for downtown is extraordinary. We’ll be creating green collar jobs,” said Noble, who expects to employ about 30 people by 2012 and hundreds more in the next two years.

Panels are currently produced at the Department of Agriculture facility in Wisconsin.

Funding from private equity and large scale strategic partners has helped get it started.

The panel products come in several shapes, such as flat, honeycomb and wave patterns.

Clients such as Whole Foods use the panels for signage, since it’s a quarter of the weight of particle boards. It can also be used for display, at trade shows and events and at points of purchase. Furniture such as tables, shelving and counter tops represent another opportunity.

Like Envision, the team running ECOR is small -- five people currently, which will increase when production is ramped up. Noble said outsourcing has been key, since early stage companies need to preserve investor capital.

Noble credits his executive team at both companies for pulling together and creating value, and giving him the time and space to focus on his goals.

His strategy for rapid commercial expansion involves partnering up with vendors -- who are primarily in the West Coast -- but in the near future he expects to collaborate with partners in Southeast Asia, Argentina and Brazil.

He also expects that clients will take his core panels and develop their own products, using his product as an “open architecture” base, similar to software.

“Our model is lean, we have partners and very little overheads. We invented the core technology to the most disruptive, innovative material ever,” said Noble, who envisions ECOR becoming really big.

-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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