TYLER NORRIS TAKES SOLAR FROM CAMPUS TO COMMUNITY
At some point as he was juggling a full class load at USD and working 30 hours a week as an analyst at Apple, Tyler Norris ’16 (BBA) saw the light.
Or more precisely, the sun.
“I thought, ‘This sucks,’” Norris says of the grind. “I’d been learning about potential for solar power, so I quit my job and took a leap. There was no safety net, but what I was doing just wasn’t what I really wanted to do.”
What he really wanted was to “put the soul in solar” by harnessing the power of the sun for a greater good. Norris enlisted his dad, John, and his friend, John Moran, to build a cart powered exclusively by solar panels to vend acai bowls. (For the uninitiated, acai is a yogurt-and-fresh-fruit thing; it has to be cold.) Norris set up shop on campus and Soulr was born.
It quickly became apparent that his brainchild would be a hit.
The Soulr Cart was awarded $10,000 in the 2016 Social Innovation Challenge; another $10,000 came with winning the top spot on the O Network show, Quit Your Day Job. That attracted the attention of outside investors, which led to a more ambitious business plan.
“Events need power for public address systems and for band instruments,” Norris says. “Construction, farming — so many industries can benefit by using clean, renewable energy.”
The concept of using solar platforms for the greater good took on a new meaning after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. Norris and Eric Gersbacher ‘19 began talking about getting social impact teams on the ground in the region. They partnered with the Global Resilience Alliance and Yacht Aid Global to deliver solar technology and other supplies.
“They needed power,” Norris recalls. “Refrigeration for food, medicine, water purification; there was an all-out push to get equipment on the ground. Pretty soon we had 10,000 pounds of equipment. Our team spent 10 days offloading it. It was amazing to see how much that help was needed and appreciated.”
Norris developed his sense of purpose growing up on Whidbey Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. It was a bucolic community, populated by bald eagles, clams, crabs and “pretty much any other type of wildlife you can imagine,” he says. “’Island time’ is something that reminds me to follow God, to follow the universe.”
Norris sought to create a similar environment at USD.
“I started what I called the Revive Tribe to help break the social silos and create a new way to connect,” he says. “We’d gather on the lawn and share ideas about ways to generate impact.” He also offered his Soulr cart business model to groups looking to raise money.
“Most people would use traditional ways to raise money, like car washes and bake sales,” he says. “But the solar cart is mobile, so you can easily take it to where the people are.” In fact, USD’s Auxiliary Services department purchased a Soulr cart that USD students can check out and use to generate revenue for a variety of causes.
Today, what began as a single solar cart has taken on a much bigger life of its own. The next step is to create component and kit-based off-grid solar platforms that meet an even wider variety of needs.
“We’re doubling down on social impact,” Norris says. “The millennial generation has a huge opportunity to harness technology to change paradigms. Just about every facet of life can be powered by solar energy.
“When I was at USD, we talked a lot about how one idea can change the world. To really change the world will take a lot of ideas, but I think this can, for sure, be one of them.” — Timothy McKernan