OHIO alumna Michelle Greenfield serves as CEO of Third Sun. She co-owns the business with her husband Geoff, who serves as company president.
Photo courtesy of: OHIO Innovation Center
Ohio University’s Innovation Center helps fuel the Athens economy by providing member companies, such as Third Sun, with valuable business incubation resources.
Photo courtesy of: OHIO Innovation Center
Third Sun founders Geoff and Michelle Greenfield hold Master's degrees in international development from Ohio University.
Photo courtesy of: Michelle Greenfield
Oct 14, 2010
By Monica Chapman
This special Compass series features the programs and initiatives through which Ohio University students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends are realizing their promise as they elevate lives across the region. These people-focused success stories take you behind the scenes and highlight the many meaningful ways OHIO serves society by supporting educational, economic, creative and wellness endeavors, as well as other humanitarian efforts.
It's been 13 years since Ohio University alumni Geoff and Michelle Greenfield have had a home electric bill. Today, as owners of Third Sun Solar and Wind Power Ltd., they are eliminating energy bills for clients across the state through the installation of clean energy systems.
What started as a family business in the attic of a remote farmhouse has blossomed into Ohio's 16th fastest-growing private firm, according to Inc. Magazine's 2010 rankings. Their growth is further accelerated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which backs eight of Third Sun's current projects.
The Greenfield's American dream has not been the standard for the Appalachian setting where their business is situated.
According to data by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachia consistently experiences higher poverty rates and higher unemployment rates than the national average, while its per capita market income is only about three-fourths of that of the nation at large. The picture is even more dire in Athens County, where poverty rates more than doubled the national average in 2000.
But several Ohio University initiatives are working to change this picture.
Groups such as the Appalachian Regional Entrepreneurship Group and OHIO's Small Business Development Centers encourage entrepreneurship development in the region through free business consulting services. Others, such as Ohio University's Innovation Center, fuel Athens' economy by providing member companies with valuable business incubation resources.
Third Sun is one of the Innovation Center's 16 member companies. As such, the company is not only surviving, but thriving, having clocked a 483 percent rate of growth between 2006 and 2009.
Tracing back ten years, Geoff reminisces about the company's humble beginnings: "Thinking back to some of our early planning sessions, the big stretch was, 'Do you think we should buy a van?'"
But, it was the blurred boundary between home and work that finally spurred the Greenfields to take their home-based business to the next level.
"There was a question about future employees. Where would they sit, and would they walk upstairs through our living room?" recalled Geoff.
The solution was literally underfoot, as the Greenfields worked to install a solar array on the roof of OHIO's Innovation Center. They eventually turned their attention to its business incubation services and joined the center in 2003.
Over time, Third Sun has come to occupy 10 offices and a warehouse at the Innovation Center, growing from two to 20 employees in the span of a decade.
"All that without changing our address, without changing our phone number, without changing the entire infrastructure," said Geoff.
Though the Greenfields credit their boom to a combination of policy, technology and public awareness, they are quick to point out the University's support.
Third Sun has benefited from various sales seminars, as well as student assistance through OHIO's Integrated Masters of Business Administration program, which is co-delivered through the College of Business and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.
Training in project administration and small business development was provided through OHIO's International Development Studies program, where the Greenfields attended graduate school. (It was this program, housed in the Center for International Studies, that originally attracted Geoff and Michelle to Athens.)
But it was OHIO's Innovation Center that provided Third Sun with a distinct advantage.
"It offered an opportunity to get out into a real office space and have interaction with other businesses and more interaction with the University," said Michelle, adding, "It's really enabled us to grow."
Created in 1983, the Innovation Center was the first university-based business incubator in the state of Ohio and just the 12th in the United States. The center boasts an array of services and resources, including a 36,000 square foot facility that opened in 2003.
Among the center's most notable success stories is that of Diagnostic Hybrids Inc. (DHI). A graduate of Ohio University's Innovation Center, DHI recognized $38 million in revenue in 2008, reflecting a three-year compounded annual organic growth rate of 21 percent. The company was purchased by Quidel Corp. in January 2010 for approximately $130 million in cash.
Up and away
Like DHI, Third Sun's recent success is a key indicator that the business is graduation-ready, according to Innovation Center Director Jennifer Simon. Simon is currently working with the Greenfields and Athens Country Economic Development Council to locate a new home for the business.
"(Third Sun) has reached a point where they are well-recognized as one of the top industry leaders, and their growth rate backs that up," said Simon, speculating that that the company will likely break into the top-500 fastest-growing companies in America, based on its present trajectory.
Currently, Third Sun ranks as the 623rd fastest-growing private company in America - 22nd among all national energy firms. But for Geoff, such recognition is no more than "a big atta-boy."
The true reward, said Michelle, is making a difference in the lives of their clients.
"We'll get little sticky notes on checks," she explained. "One of them was 'Thanks for making our dreams come true.'"
Being among the earliest Athens county residents to employ solar technology, the Greenfields can relate.
"Solar has been… a someday technology since the 60's and the 70's. And now, it's a today technology," explained Geoff. "You can actually call somebody, sign a contract and have a solar system powering your house."
But for the Greenfields, sheer availability of renewable energy isn't enough.
"When solar is as popular as air conditioning, my work will be done," said Geoff.