Friday, March 25, 2011

Testing solar without teaching it

Today we had the finals of the Lucas School entrepreneurial case competition, where 11 teams competed to orally present their analysis of a standard business case.

The case we used was Nanosolar, published in 2009 by Harvard Business School Press. The teams were asked to analyze Nanosolar’s strategies and recommend what it should do going forward (from 2009).

Today was the finals between the two remaining teams. I was fortunate to be selected as the faculty judge, along with two industry judges:
  • Brian Stone is VP of sales and marketing for Nanosolar. A former manager of Siebel Systems and marketing VP for SunPower, he has an MBA from UC Berkeley
  • Mike Balma is a consultant to Skyline Solar, has been active in SolarTech and previously held a range of marketing jobs at HP. He has an MBA from Stanford.
Actually, I was more of a moderator and emcee: I vowed beforehand that if our industry experts agreed on the winner, then I wouldn’t even vote.

The final two teams were:
  • Dan Doung, Adam Harlow, Chris Heuser, John Shippy, and David Van Der Steen from our full-time MBA-One program;
  • Jason Chan, Weiwei (Vivi) Chen, Dylan Crutchfield, Dion Jefferson, and Kellen Yeung, a hybrid between the MBA-One and our on-campus evening MBA.
Normally when I teach solar, I use my own industry note (available upon request) that describes the economics and (simplified) technologies of PV companies. I also lecture to discuss the industry.

Today, our teams only had the Nanosolar case to work from. There were a few problems in the case (that Brian plans to send back to Harvard). But even if we’d used the more up-to-date Nanosolar case from Stanford, it was clear the students would have had problems understanding a complex industry from 12½ pages of text.

Mike, Brian and I take for granted that everyone understands issues such as the relative efficiency of thin film and crystalline solar and the interdependence of PV cost, substitute costs and subsidies upon PV adoption. The students picked up some of these points from the case but on other issues had to make assumptions (that sometimes were wrong).

Of course, three years ago I would have made the same mistake. It was only by immersing myself in writing my own solar case in the Fall of 2008 that I came up to speed — followed by more teaching, blogging, and researching academic papers.

This comes back to a more general point that I’ve been trying to make as the College of Business and our Lucas graduate school update their curriculum. It’s hard to prepare students for the sort of tech industries that populate Silicon Valley without having some industry-specific knowledge. If you want to get a job in solar (or semiconductors or software) you need to know something about it.

This raises the question about whether we offer electives for all the various possibilities, provide a survey course that covers a range of industries, or integrate this material into our regular courses. We may end up using a combination of approaches.

After we heard the presentations today, Brian explained what happened to the company and why, while Mike offered more general industry observations. Then I got to announce the winner: team #2, the team of Chan, Chen, Crutchfield, Jefferson and Yeung.

Even the students who didn’t win felt like they learned a lot. Perhaps that’s the final take-home: beyond preparing the case, there are learning possibilities from listening to others and (in other cases) industry experts as guest speakers.

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