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How to raise $170 million for a crazy idea
12/07 - 2016

How to raise $170 million for a crazy idea

At the origin of Solar Impulse in 2002, there was no money, no team and no technology. Nothing more than a crazy idea of achieving the first-ever solar flight around the world, with the objective of promoting clean solutions for a more sustainable world through a spectacular adventure. In the end, funds from marketing budgets and committed individuals have financed 13 years of research and development.


Be endorsed to gain credibility. The first step is to find one key opinion leader or a reputable institution that believes in you. In my case, it was the Head of Research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. This type of external credibility is essential in being able to kick-start your project.

Bring yourself past the point of no return. Announce your goal in a public forum such as a press conference in order to prevent any temptation to give up. This will prove to potential partners your absolute determination to make it a success.

Don't wait to have the means to start, or you will never get off the ground. Begin with what you have, anything, and if you have nothing, work with people who will give you something “to have” and who accept to be paid later. During 15 years, the financial visibility of Solar Impulse has never been more than 6 months, very often only 2 or 3. This will work only if you manage to build, for yourself and your team, a high resistance to anxiety, otherwise, you'll never hold the distance.

Have faith in your project as if it was good enough for you to fund it … if you had the means. Your interlocutors will feel it. At the outset, the only tangibles you have are press clippings from your announcement and a PowerPoint presentation with a virtual image of an impossible dream. But you can show much more: who you really are, your authenticity, your passion; and more than all of that, the purpose why you are doing it.

Go where no one else has gone. What you offer has to be truly original. Attempting something that is only spectacular can appear egocentric, and promoting a useful goal is often boring. Your endeavor needs to be both exciting and meaningful. In that sense Solar Impulse is a first in aviation, but also in sustainability.

Do not convince…Motivate! As a doctor specialized in psychiatry and psychotherapy, I have understood the fundamental difference between “convincing” and “motivating”. When faced with a given situation in life, every human being tends to respond with a degree of ambivalence. He or she is torn between one part, which wants to say yes and another, which wants to say no. If you try to convince a person, you’ll be fighting against the part that wants to answer no. It’s thus a conflict, and only the strongest will win. Motivating is the opposite: it’s stimulating the part of the person that would like to answer yes. Therefore, it’s an alliance and not a struggle.

Convincing consists of giving arguments in one’s own favor, whereas motivating consists in sharing a desire or a goal. You have to make the people you address feel at ease, stimulated by the desire to try and make progress. Motivating people often means putting them on the path they’d like to take themselves, but have not had the courage or the capabilities to follow until now. The primordial condition is to establish a win-win relation.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Remain realistic and transparent. Don't hide the difficulties. Otherwise it becomes manipulation instead of motivation. Aside from marketing rights, I did not promise anything to anyone. I most certainly never said, “You’ll see, it’ll be a fantastic adventure with a historic success.” On the contrary, I warned each of them that it would be difficult, that there would probably be failures, but what I was offering them was a unique opportunity to succeed together. Nobody came on board Solar Impulse to sign a check to make my own dream come true, but rather to be part of a collective project belonging to all its stakeholders. The ones who joined our project never gave up when we had setbacks. They had all made it their own adventure and wanted it to succeed.

Don’t hold yourself hostage of your business plan. Yes you have to do the traditional business plan as a first step in putting a financial context around your project, but do realize that it quickly becomes obsolete. The Solar Impulse budget was estimated to be $34m for a project, which was initially intended to last 6 years.  It turned out to be $170m and 13 years. The mistake we made was to divide the total needs in different levels of sponsorship, like an entry ticket with a fixed amount to be paid by each sponsor independently of the duration. As a result, we became stuck as soon as the first $34m were spent.

To fix this problem, I needed to simultaneously find additional partners and ask the existing ones to pay more. Impossible challenge? Exactly as impossible as flying around the world without fuel, and this is precisely why it worked. An impossible goal will interest pioneers and gather creative people; an easy one will attract rigid and conventional people.

Raise money for the project, not for yourself. I deliberately never took any salary from Solar Impulse, so I was never ashamed to request for additional funding. Our Partners understood that it was not for me, rather for the benefit of the endeavor.

Expect the unexpected. Contrary to what one would suspect, Solar Impulse’s funding did not come from the aviation or energy industry, so I had to think outside traditional paradigms. A specialist has learned to reproduce what he knows, not to move outside his comfort zone. Support came from chemical and industrial companies, insurance, Internet, engineering, cosmetic and even from a champagne brand. Innovation very often comes from outside the system. After all it was not the people who were selling candles who invented the light bulb.

Don’t waste time on ineffective solicitations. Never send sponsoring requests by mail to people you don't know personally. What works best is direct contact. Several times we used a middleman, not to negotiate, but with the sole purpose of making a valuable high-level introduction. Your interlocutor absolutely needs to be a top level. A marketing department will often consider you as an additional workload if the Chairman or the CEO hasn't personally committed.

Be everywhere, all the time, and meet everybody. It was often in the most unlikely situations that I created new partnerships. Imagine $15m coming from an encounter in a reading club who insisted on having me deliver a keynote speech to elderly women?

Fund raising is a question of meeting the right people at the right time. It's not a question of the type of company or their field of activity. In two situations, I met three successive CEOs just to be refused, until the fourth one accepted with enthusiasm to become an important partner.

Make a partner not a sponsor. A sponsor is interested in visibility and a direct commercial return on investment. Your task is to appear in his advertising campaign. A partner is participating with you, to make the adventure happen. He will bring technology and know-how as much as money. He becomes a member of your team, someone you should always try to give more than what he expects.

Bring your colleagues into the process at the right moment. An agreement from the CEO does not immediately suggest that the deal is done. The process continues with the negotiations between the legal teams. You need with you a negotiator who has the spirit you want to insufflate in the partnership and we have a Gregory Blatt who lives and dies for the success of this adventure. And my associate André Borschberg, CEO of Solar impulse, whose education as an engineer brings management insight and credibility to the crazy ideas of an explorer. Thus the final result is always teamwork.

 Prof. Bertrand Piccard is the Initiator, Chairman and Pilot of Solar Impulse. He has secured more than 60 Partner companies and organizations that have contributed $170m in financing as well as providing technologies required for the 13-year adventure.

This blog was originally posted here.