The Power and Importance of Delusion

Solantro’s Antoine Paquin has lived the life of a serial entrepreneur. Now he has visions of powering the planet with renewable energy.

An entrepreneur is something you are, not something you become, according to Antoine Paquin. He should know, having built Skystone Systems from the ground up before selling the company to Cisco. Today, he serves as founder and CEO of Solantro Semiconductor Corp., a company taking a different approach to power conversion, energy storage, and grid-management-system architectures. “I’ve always considered [being] an entrepreneur in my DNA,” Paquin says.

Paquin credits that DNA, as well as an independent spirit, to his father. A solitary man, the late Raymond Paquin was a retired mathematics professor and philosopher who had pursued a career in number theory, including cryptography, as well as operations research. “He had inspired me from a very young age to pursue the creation of wealth via new ideas and technology,” Paquin says.

“You’re delusional until proven visionary—that’s the life of an entrepreneur.”

Those ambitions have taken shape in Paquin’s track record, which has proven, time and again, that he has an eye for the “next big wave.” As CEO of Philsar Semiconductor, he was tasked with making his vision a reality in markets that did not exist yet: Bluetooth and GPS. After Conexant Systems acquired Philsar in 2000, Paquin headed up Axiom Microdevices, a spin-off of Caltech. “The company ultimately ended up proving every PhD in the industry wrong by delivering what was considered impossible—by using a silicon CMOS [complementary metal oxide semiconductor] to make dirt-cheap cell phone power amplifiers,” he says.

Paquin then set up RHO Ventures, where he got the entrepreneurial itch again. “I basically left the comfort and high salary of being a venture capitalist for a risky and uncertain outcome with a tiny fraction of compensation,” he says. “I’ve never been so alive.”

This risk-taking mind-set led Paquin to seize the opportunity to rethink power conversion with Solantro. Rather than relying on large, centralized plants, Paquin’s vision to power the planet involves leveraging free energy from the sun, wind, and other sources, before mixing them together to form a grid.

“One hour of solar energy hitting the planet is equivalent to all the energy consumption by all of humanity in a year,” Paquin says. “There’s no shortage of energy. What’s missing is the technology to convert that energy and make it dirt cheap to exploit and pull together. The way that’s going to happen is with horizontal integration and open standards in the industry.” That’s what Solantro is all about.

Solantro is leveraging growth opportunities in grid support and evolution on the edge of power grids throughout the world, as well as electrification of areas that have no power. “Five billion people have little infrastructure or no infrastructure at all on the planet,” Paquin says. “The solution is not to go fight more wars over oil and dig more stuff out of the ground to burn it and pollute the environment—there’s a tremendous opportunity here to electrify humanity using God’s free energy.”

“There’s a tremendous opportunity here to electrify humanity using God’s free energy.”

While the opportunity is huge, the task is horrendously difficult, according to Paquin. “I’ve never seen such a difficult fund-raising environment,” Paquin says. And although venture capital exists for gaming applications and social-media platforms, venture capital rarely exists for what Paquin calls “real risk taking” and “real industry building.” To combat that, he has had to get creative in terms of financing. Ultimately, though, Paquin is making gains on turning Solantro’s vision into reality. The company is already a leader in the innovation of integrated circuit design in a young industry.

Moreover, renewable energy is starting to become competitive with traditional sources of power generation. “As renewables become cheaper to produce, oil, gas, coal, and other nonrenewable sources will be relegated to niches where they are very hard to replace, such as aircraft transportation; but most everything else, such as car transportation, will go to electricity and the power grid, which needs to evolve, and it’s going to evolve with distributed power generation,” Paquin says.

As the energy industry evolves, so too will Paquin. “The life of an entrepreneur is to pursue what you believe is the right stage of evolution as the world evolves and making that vision of evolution happen in a business that is self-sustainable,” he says. When Solantro achieves everything he has envisioned for it, Paquin will likely resume his hunt. Bring on the next wave.

In Memoriam of Adam Chowaniec

Solantro recently lost its chairman, Adam Chowaniec, a tech pioneer with more than 30 years of industry experience. Chowaniec was recognized as one of the founding fathers of the personal computer by the California Computer Museum and named Gold Business Person of the Year in 1999 by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce. He was also awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for entrepreneurship in 2012. “Adam was an incredible visionary and, like me, delusional,” Paquin says. “But delusional enough to make it happen.”