Clean Energy Founder Details Her Entrepreneurship Journey

Clean Energy Founder Details Her Entrepreneurship Journey

Many innovators working in renewable energy and climate technology leverage entrepreneurship to maximize the impact of their work. Charlotte Hamilton ’95, MBA ’04, a lifelong entrepreneur and the CEO of N5 Solar, is one such innovator. 

The co-founder of five hard technology startups and co-inventor of multiple pieces of intellectual property, Hamilton was named an Unreasonable Fellow in 2021 and won the grand prize for Clean Energy Research at CleanEquity Monaco. She was also featured as an inaugural member of the Gaingels 100, a book honoring 100 leading LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs. 

On April 26, Hamilton shared her insights on clean energy entrepreneurship with the Cornell community at a free presentation hosted by W.E. Cornell and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. She described her path in entrepreneurship and the lessons she learned from each startup she co-founded. 

Hamilton started her entrepreneurial journey as an MBA student with Distributed Generation Technologies (DGT), a startup focused on using multiple technologies to generate power in a distributed manner. While the startup didn’t work out, it was a valuable learning experience: 

“Be selective, and I mean this about the technology and the opportunity that you’re going to move forward,” she said. “Just because you invented it or your advisor invented it doesn’t mean it’s the best idea for your unique gift…Ideas are here, but people that can move them forward are rare.” 

 After moving on from DGT, Hamilton joined a company called Novomer that upcycled carbon dioxide into polymers. She helped grow the company to about 30 employees, raise $6.5 million in venture capital and the company sold in 2021 for $152 million. 

Hamilton’s experience raising capital for Novomer taught her to choose investors wisely. 

“A lot of the entrepreneurial myth is just about go out, chase the money, chase the money, chase the money,” she said. “But you’ve got to be selective and find money that has similar values to you.” 

Motivated to apply the lessons from her first two startups, Hamilton found another technology commercialization opportunity. She helped found a company called Adenios around a technology that improves drug delivery to the brain, with the potential to fight brain cancer and HIV. 

The company ultimately folded, but the technology evolved, and a version of it is now part of the standard of care in HIV treatment. Hamilton’s takeaway was to be persistent because although the company didn’t work, it played one small part in moving this important technology forward. 

“Persistence is omnipotent,” she said. “If you’re going to do this as a career, you have to face hardships, and things are not always going to work. But I decided to keep being an entrepreneur even though this company failed because I like doing what I do.” 

With her next startup, Conamix, Hamilton ventured into the battery industry. After struggling to fundraise, the team found out the technology they were working on was not unique and didn’t have enough of a competitive advantage to succeed in the market. They pivoted to a different battery technology and moved forward. 

Hamilton led Conamix for 10 years. She stepped down last year and founded her current company, N5 Solar, which makes more durable, longer lasting solar panels. The startup is named, in part, for the company’s five core values — integrity, respect, focus, persistence and quality.  

“Values really do matter,” she said. “Make sure the people you’re working with have similar values.” 

After concluding her presentation, Hamilton opened the conversation to the audience for questions. 

“I find great inspiration in people that have overcome huge challenges and are still moving things forward,” she said. “There’s this myth in entrepreneurship that you just have to be this total visionary and then everything’s going to work out for you. That is not true. You have to be the total visionary that knows every single detail of your company. You have to be equal part visionary and incredibly detail-oriented.”