Arts / Environment / Startups

Meet the Brooklyn entrepreneur bringing solar power to fashion

Colin Touhey, the CEO of Dumbo-based Pvilion, spoke at Thursday's Fashion Tech Forum. Are you ready for a phone-charging jacket?

At first glance, Colin Touhey seemed to be an odd choice as a presenter at a fashion event.

Not because he doesn’t look the part — the 28-year-old kitesurfing devotee looks like he could have stepped out of a J. Crew catalog. But at first glance, his company, Pvilion, seems to have nothing to do with the industry. Pvilion, which is based in Dumbo, designs and builds structures made with flexible solar panels. Its work includes a temporary event space that it built on the roof of Carnegie Hall for the venue’s opening night gala in 2014.
But there Touhey was, on stage at Thursday’s Fashion Tech Forum, held at Duggal Greenhouse inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
So what is his connection to fashion?
Enter Pvilion’s partnership with Tommy Hilfiger. Pvilion’s solar fabric could be adapted to clothing. In 2014, the company developed a jacket with detachable solar panels for the fashion brand. The partnership continues, Touhey told Technical.ly, with handbags and other clothing next in the pipeline.
Pvilion’s foray into fashion, it turns out, is just one in a series of reinventions for the company’s principals. It’s a spinoff of another company, FTL Solar, which specialized in designing solar-powered tents for the military. That company in itself was an outgrowth of yet another firm, FTL Design Engineering Studio, which developed tensile fabric structures — a fancy term for creative tent-like structures — and began in 1977.
Touhey started out as an employee at FTL Solar, working under its cofounders Todd Dalland and Robert Lerner. But he quickly climbed the ranks: when the company decided to spin off Pvilion, he became a partner. Having an affinity for consumer products, which the company identified as its target focus, Touhey assumed the role of CEO.
In a sense, then, he’s the boss. What’s it like having the tables turned?
According to Touhey, it’s not quite like that.
“We have great dynamics. My strengths make up for their weaknesses, and their strengths make up for my weaknesses,” he said.

Creativity is “part of our DNA”

Though he lives in Hell’s Kitchen now, Touhey grew up in Brooklyn, in Park Slope. As a teenager, he was torn between an interest in creative pursuits — “I thought I might be an artist,” he said — and a knack for science. Then he realized that engineering could offer the best of both worlds.
“It’s the intersection of creativity and science,” he said.
In 2010, Touhey graduated from Trinity College in Connecticut with a degree in electrical engineering. From there, he joined FTL Solar, where he helped develop systems to transfer the energy captured from the company’s solar panels in order to power phones and other handheld devices. One of Pvilion’s phone-charging stations, which operates on the same principle, was featured at the entrance of the Fashion Tech Forum.
The year after Touhey joined, he, Dalland, and Lerner decided to launch Pvilion, a new company that would focus primarily on architectural projects and consumer applications, such as the phone-charging station. The company made the move, he said, because the sales cycle for the military — its primary customer up until that point — could often be quite long and arduous. The military’s procurement process is geared toward larger companies, he added, which meant the bidding process required substantial investment and risk.

Colin Touhey, CEO of Pvilion.

Colin Touhey, CEO of Pvilion. (Photo by April Joyner)

Plus, the new areas gave the company more opportunity to flex its creative muscle. In a few of Pvilion’s architectural projects, it’s even gotten free rein to design structures with minimal guidelines. For Google, Pvilion designed and built a solar carport for one of the company’s parking lots as well as a solar canopy over a juice bar.
“Making things that are lightweight, beautiful and flexible is part of our DNA,” Touhey said.
Pvilion hasn’t completely abandoned the military, though. Its recent projects include a contract with the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center to develop self-erecting tents, which can be dropped out of an airplane with no further installation needed.
Another of Pvilion’s recent projects involves building a façade for the Artists for Humanity Epicenter in Boston. Essentially, the building will be wrapped in Pvilion’s solar fabric, which will be used to generate electricity. By having solar cells across its entire surface area rather than solely on the rooftop, as with a conventional solar installation, the building will produce enough solar energy to power itself, Touhey said. The Artists for Humanity Epicenter, according to Pvilion, is set to become the largest energy-positive commercial building on the East Coast.

Becoming fashion forward

Fashion wasn’t initially in the plans for Pvilion. But its flexible solar panels drew interest from the industry, and soon enough, Touhey said, several brands approached the company about possible collaborations.
Pvilion’s technology embeds solar panels into the fabric itself, so it can easily be integrated into a garment by a factory worker. The difference between the fabric for, say, Tommy Hilfiger’s jackets and that used for architectural projects rests upon two factors, Touhey said: the flexibility of the fabric and the power of the solar cells. The more flexible the fabric, the less powerful the solar cells are, so picking the appropriate fabric requires making some compromise between the two factors. Apparel requires much greater flexibility than a rooftop canopy, since you’d expect to be able to fold up a shirt or ball it up to throw it in the wash. (Pvilion’s fabric is washable.)
At some points, the process of working with Tommy Hilfiger was “frustrating,” in Touhey’s words. That’s mainly because Pvilion faced the challenge of adapting its underlying technology for fashion garments at the same time as it developed the design for the specific products Tommy Hilfiger sought to produce. And of course, it had to be done to the brand’s specifications, which often required translating between fashion and technical jargon.
“They don’t do tech, so that was new for us,” Touhey said.
But that challenge has ultimately made the company stronger, Touhey said.
“They are really good at listening to customers,” he said, “so if they can tell us about those customers, that’s a great opportunity for us.”
Plus, he added, it’s a challenge he’s begun to relish. The company has begun working with additional apparel brands, which Touhey declined to name. In the future, he says, he envisions working on a variety of products, from backpacks to umbrellas — basically, anything involving fabric.
“Working on consumer products is great,” he said. “I like making thousands of something.”

Series: Brooklyn

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