Here Comes the Sun

USD alumnus Tyler Norris


At some point as he was juggling the bowling balls of a full class load at USD and 30 hours a week working as an analyst at Apple, Tyler Norris saw the light. Or more precisely, the sun.

“I thought, ‘this sucks,’” Norris says of the grind. “At USD, I had 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 Norris really wanted was to “put the soul in solar” by harnessing the power of the sun for a greater good. Norris enlisted his friend, John Moran, along with Tyler’s dad, John, to build a cart powered exclusively by solar panels to vend acai bowls. (There is a certain irony that solar power is used to keep the contents of the cart chilled. For the uninitiated, acai is a yogurt-and-fresh-fruit thing; ya gotta keep it cold.) Norris set up shop near the turnabout between Maher Hall and Warren Hall, and Soulr was born.

The Soulr Cart won the Social Innovation Challenge at USD and the $10,000 prize that came with it; another $10,000 came with winning the top spot on the O Network show Quit Your Day Job. Those awards provided investment capital and attracted the attention of outside investors, which helped lead to a more ambitious business plan. Norris dreamed of creating solar platforms for other purposes than vending acai bowls. For example, Norris says, Soulr constructed a 4 x 6-foot trailer to power the water pumps, lighting and ventilation for a greenhouse some 50 yards long.

“Events need power for public address systems and for band instruments,” Norris says. “Construction, farming … these and so many other industries can benefit by using clean, renewable energy. Sure, they can run electric lines from other power sources, but running those businesses from the sun says something very special about those businesses.”

Norris’ concept of using solar platforms for the greater good took on a new meaning after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Norris and Master of Social Innovation student Eric Gersbacker began talking about getting social impact teams on the ground to help those affected in the storm’s aftermath.

“They needed power,” Norris noted. “Refrigeration for food, medicine, water purification … there was an all-out push to get equipment on the ground. We partnered with the Global Resilience Alliance and pretty soon had 10,000 pounds of equipment on a boat we took to Puerto Rico. Our team spent 10 days offloading equipment and supplies. It was amazing to see, right away, how much that help was needed and appreciated. It was awesome to see how much an idea can really make a difference.”

What began with a solar cart vending acai bowls has taken on a much bigger life of its own. The next step for Soulr, Norris says, is creating 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. “When I was at USD, we talked a lot about how one idea can change the world. I think to really change the world it’ll take a lot of ideas, but this can, for sure, be one of them.” — Timothy McKernan

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