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Grouphug, a tiny solar startup in Brooklyn, nabs Mark Cuban as an investor

Founder Krystal Persaud, a LittleBits alum, basically crushed it on Shark Tank.

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Grouphug's founder on Shark Tank pitching her solar business, which makes window solar panels for customers.

Eric McCandless/ABC

OK, let's try some good news for a change. Frankly, I could use it, so here goes.

Over the summer (aka in the Before Times), we had a chance to profile Krystal Persaud, a whip-smart and quirky 31-year-old New Jersey native who in 2018 created the Brooklyn startup Grouphug (I know, not a very social-distancing-y name). The company makes designer solar panels you can hang on your window to charge your phone and enjoyed early success on Kickstarter, where it raised $70,000 for that product.

Persaud created Grouphug after leading product design for years at another New York tech startup, LittleBits, which makes colorful DIY electronics and sold last August to Sphero.

Last year, she was contacted by the folks at Shark Tank to appear on the show after they saw her Kickstarter video. So, she flew out to Los Angeles in September to pitch her story to a lineup of famous investors, including Kevin "Mr. Wonderful" O'Leary and Barbara Corcoran.

She assembled a bunch of prototypes for her presentation and brought pictures of "Solar Cat," a large cat-shaped solar panel that's affixed to a window of the New York Hall of Science in Queens. The 140-watt cat powers a phone charging station inside the museum.

The sharks told her the cat was the future of her business, but many of them quickly dropped out, opting not to bid on her company. The only investor left in the running was Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks and the most well-known investor on the show.

"You're impressive, I think there's a lot of upside to the concept," he told her during the taping, which aired for the first time Friday.

Persaud was looking for an investment of $150,000 in return for 10% of her business. Cuban offered her that amount, but for 25%.

"Would you like …" Persaud said.

"No," Cuban jumped in.

"... to go down to 20?"

"No," he repeated.

Persaud threw her hand in the air, smiled and said, "You've got a deal, Mark."

She told me Cuban is now Grouphug's only outside investor, after she's bootstrapped the company up until now. She's been talking to him for advice and business contacts "basically every week."

"Since I've been working with him, it has been totally worth it," she said of the new investment.

Going forward, Persaud said she'll be leaning into the Solar Cat business model, selling more custom-designed and uniquely shaped solar-panel projects to businesses and organizations as a way for them to show off their solar roofs and green initiatives.

"I'm actually working on a turtle-shaped solar panel right now," she said. That's for a museum in Iowa.

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Solar Cat and its phone charging station at that New York Hall of Science.

Courtesy of Krystal Persaud

These larger panels start at $5,000, a much steeper price tag than her consumer-focused window panels, which are $149 each. She said she'll continue to sell the smaller window panels, too, as a way of helping introduce the public to accessible solar tech and potentially find more larger projects.

Of course, Grouphug's work is slower going now during the coronavirus crisis, especially because Persaud's manufacturer is in China, which was badly hit by the virus, and her co-working space in Manhattan is closed. But she expressed confidence for the future of this work.

I asked Persaud if she plans to change the name of her business, since group hugs are not recommended these days. She laughed at that idea, explaining that she named the business Grouphug to harken to small collective group actions and the warm feeling of working together.

"I actually think it's more important than before to talk about it," she said.

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