Mosaic crowdfunds clean tech, opens platform to non-accredited investors

By Richard Nieva , written on January 7, 2013

From The News Desk

The last time somebody named his Internet project “Mosaic,” we got something that profoundly changed the landscape of the technology world – and by extension, the rest of the world. After all, before the proliferation of mobile apps, the Web browser was our only common entry to the Internet.

The current iteration of Mosaic is an investment platform that connects investors with solar projects. For the new Mosiac, the result will probably not be as immediately revolutionary as Marc Andreessen’s original browser, but the people behind this Mosaic are hoping that its effects on the planet will be just as profound.

Think of Mosaic as a Kickstarter for green tech, though that analogy is really only helpful at the most basic level. Mosiac's founder and president Billy Parish says the difference is that his platform finances projects – like, say, a rooftop solar panel project – whereas Kickstarter finances people and companies that in turn launch projects.

Today, the Oakland, CA-based organization opened up the platform to more of the general public: In California and New York, anyone can invest in any of the solar projects on the site, as well as accredited investors in all 50 states. Previously, only accredited investors could participate. The minimum amount for an investment is $25. Today Mosaic is also posting a “couple hundred” new projects on the marketplace, Parish says.

Investments in things like solar panels are usually paid for up front by someone– and that someone is usually a bank. Mosaic replaces the bank with a crowd, says Parish. The service aggregates a lot of investors, then funds infrastructure projects that pay their investors back over time, up to 4.5 percent returns, Parish says. “A lot of the other crowdfunding platforms are focused on equity investment in startups. We’re doing something completely different,” he says, and adds that he is using a state-based regulatory approach. Parish says Mosaic is more in line with services like Kiva, LendingClub and Prosper.

Mosaic so far boasts about $1.1 million invested in its clean tech projects. Past projects include solar paneling for St. Vincent de Paul Society of Alameda County in the Bay Area, a charity that helps the poor and homeless, and another solar panel project for California low-income housing for seniors.

It hasn’t been the easiest time for clean tech of late. Solar panels have gotten cheaper to produce, which means there’s less demand for a number of different companies to produce them. But from a project -- and planet-- perspective, this can obviously be a good thing. And even though SolarCity didn’t raise as much as it would have liked in its IPO last month, the price popped on its first day. And last week, Warren Buffet acquired two solar projects from the California-based SunPower Corp. for over $2 billion.

Parish describes himself as a “mission-driven entrepreneur,” though he insists the bottom line is generating revenue for investors. “We make people money!” he emphasizes, unsolicited, when I follow up on a different question. It’s a common response from entrepreneurs that want to make it clear that supporting their good cause does not equate to thankless charity work.

It’s an odd -- and probably left-field -- comparison, but For Parish, his rationale seems a bit similar to that of a certain type of animal conservationist. The late Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, believed in putting animals on TV so people could get to know them, and have a personal stake in their welfare. Parish seems to be operating under the same rationale: “One of the best ways to solve climate change is to allow lots and lots of people to profit from climate solutions,” he says.

It's certainly a noble cause, but, like he says, it takes lots and lots of pieces -- or investors -- to really form a Mosaic. Or live up to the name.

[Image courtesy: robynejay]