Engineering Entrepreneurs Land First Big Break with Alma Mater
August 20, 2008
Greg Digneo, a 2004 Rowan University electrical and computer engineering graduate, recently signed a contract with his alma mater to install a photovoltaic system (solar panels) on the South Jersey Technology Park at Rowan University. The contact marks the first high-profile commercial deal for the business he thanks Rowan for helping him start.
Digneo, 23, originally of Blackwood, knew from a young age that he wanted to start his own business. "When I was six and all my friends said they wanted to grow up and be a shortstop for the Phillies, I was thinking, I want to own my business."
He joins the other entrepreneurs in the family. His grandfather opened and owned DiBruno Bros. House of Cheese of Philadelphia until it was passed down to cousins.
Digneo co-owns and operates Systems of Apollo, a company that designs and installs solar panels, with another Rowan electrical and computer engineering graduate, Matt Alestra, 23, of Thorofare. The two were close friends in college, and the idea to start a business seemed natural to them. Alestra still works full-time as a carpet estimator while watching Systems of Apollo grow. He's looking forward to being his own boss.
"It's great -- a lot of work, but the idea of controlling your own destiny is a wonderful feeling," he said.
Digneo worked with Rowan's Rohrer College of Business and College of Engineering to realize his dream. The two departments collaborated to get the idea off the ground and running. Thanks to the help of Electrical & Computer Engineering Program professor Dr. Peter Jansson and Entrepreneurship professor Dr. Mark Weaver, Digneo and Alestra started clicking in solar panels before they had their diplomas in hand.
Weaver was impressed with Digneo's ambition. "He had a willingness to do it on his own. He was the ideal young entrepreneur," Weaver said.
Jansson contributed technical knowledge while Weaver helped Digneo design business strategies. Digneo speaks highly of both professors. "Jansson is the energy guy at Rowan, he was the first one I spoke to," he said. "Dr. Weaver's my mentor."
Systems of Apollo will install solar panels that cover five percent of the energy costs of the new Technology Park, making it Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified. He hopes to start working as soon as there is a roof on the building, he said. The project will take only about two days (he equated the installation to snapping in big LegosTM), but planning takes months.
Under the terms of the contract, the Technology Park will pay only $30,000 for a 24-kW photovoltaic system valued at $146,000. The remainder of the project cost will be contributed by a rebate from the N.J. Clean Energy Program. "Given the rebate, the system will pay for itself within four years. This decision was a no-brainer for us," said Dr. Anthony Marchese, Technology Park project director.
Digneo handles the work from his home with a staff of only three, himself included. The business has experienced incredible expansion - he expects it to quadruple in 2006. He credits it all to word of mouth.
While Digneo may have had a spectacular support system, things didn?t always go smoothly. "We were working 15 hour days, six days a week. There were times I thought, "I don't want to do this anymore."
He concedes that starting a business is difficult work, but offers the following advice, "If you want to start a business, do it. Learn as much as possible and don't be afraid. I love what I do, even though there are days I don't like what I do," he said.
Digneo's love for Rowan makes it a special pleasure to contribute to the University's expansion. He's honored, he said, but it hasn't quite sunk in yet. "There are few people who can point to something tangible at Rowan and say, 'We did that!' It's our mark."