While others ran to the California hills to mine gold, Leland Stanford had the good sense to stay out of the muck and sell the supplies prospectors needed to succeed.

That strategy launched him on the path to great wealth, some of which he dedicated to launching a university named after his son. More than a century later, two students met at Stanford's business school, and launched a company to provide vital tools to the burgeoning solar industry.

Instead of pickaxes and sieves, they would sell digital shading analysis and remote system-design software, but the principle stood firm through the decades: If you help a workforce do its job better, you can share in the profits as the industry blooms.

That company, Aurora Solar, has now raised a $20 million Series A to fund its quest to become the premier solar software provider. Energize VC (formerly Invenergy Future Fund) led the round, joined by Pear Ventures and Spectrum 28 Capital.

Aurora started out performing residential rooftop shading analysis and system design, and expanded its software over time to offer a suite of residential and commercial solar design and sales tools.

Since 2013, founders Sam Adeyemo and Chris Hopper scaled the company to nearly 50 employees with less than $1 million in equity investment. Despite limited capital, they won over leading installers, including SunPower, Vivint Solar and Blue Raven. Some 60,000 solar proposals a month now rely on Aurora’s software, they said.

Now they will use the influx of capital to double their staff, expand customer success efforts and bring new tools to market.

Better tools for solar installers

Aurora grew out of an effort to install solar on a school in Kenya in 2012, during which Hopper and Adeyemo found that many of the small but necessary tasks were more laborious than they should be.

“We felt that the software hadn’t kept up with the growth of the industry,” Adeyemo said.

They turned away from hands-on installations to tackle site analysis and design steps with software, on the theory that better software could streamline the process and help the industry scale faster.

“It’s very rewarding, being on the ground and putting the panels up and seeing the project come to life,” Hopper said. But, he added, “We came across this problem and really felt like it needed to be solved.”

Now Aurora offers tiered software subscriptions for a monthly fee, which let solar companies access different tools based on the granularity of their needs.

The solar industry has dabbled with software for years.

Sungevity launched in 2007 with the radical idea that digital imagery could let solar installers mock up a site without rolling a truck. That company, though, took on not just software but solar customer relationships and installation work too. It went bankrupt in 2017, after taking in several hundred million dollars in VC money.

A bevy of software companies have entered the space since then. Folsom Labs, PVComplete, Sighten and Enact Systems, to name a few, provide software for designing and delivering solar systems. That’s a sign of maturation for the solar industry: Installers don’t have to build their own tools for system design; they have numerous options for outsourcing it.

“Being both a great software and a great installation company is difficult,” Adeyemo said. “For us, software is all that we do, day in and day out.”

These companies, in a sense, are competing to become the solar Salesforce, the platform that makes solar installers so much better at pleasing their customers that it becomes enormous and indispensable. Whichever startup pulls away from the pack will win the solar equivalent of the tallest tower west of the Mississippi.

Fuel in the tank

The array of software options pitching similar services can be hard for an observer to parse, short of trying out a half dozen competitors.

Now, at least, Aurora can claim a big vote of confidence from venture capitalists.

“The accuracy of what they’re able to do is far superior to anything else on the market,” said Amy Francetic, managing director of Energize Ventures, describing Aurora’s software.

Solar software fund raises have stayed small in the past. Folsom Labs took in $1 million in 2015, and Sighten pulled a $3.5 million Series A in the same year. Aurora was in that camp previously with its $925,000 in equity investment.

That scrappiness is something to be proud of, especially compared to the cash-burning flameouts of earlier solar startups.

“With less than a million dollars, that they were able to get to the scale they have, it speaks to their leadership but also the strength of their product,” Francetic said. “The purpose of this round is to give them the fuel in the tank that they need to expand their marketing, sales and customer success teams.”

The founders said they will hire aggressively this year, with the target of doubling their staff, “at least.” They hope to convert that build-out into a better customer experience and an expanded set of products.

“We’re going to be around for a while — we’re going to be the company that you can rely on,” Hopper said.

Long term, Aurora’s recurring revenues from selling software as a service will be attractive to potential acquirers, Francetic said.

There’s no established model for what a solar software exit looks like, given the novelty of the market. A legacy energy company might see an acquisition as a smart move to capture value from a growing distributed generation sector. Or an enterprise software giant could see Aurora as a way to reach a new B2B audience.

“We see a lot of potential avenues for eventual partners here, but more than anything we see the opportunity to really grow a terrific business that can enable more and more distributed solar in the U.S. and around the world,” Francetic said.

Given the persistence of soft costs in U.S. solar, there’s plenty of work on that front left to do.