Jon Sharpe, managing partner of cCubed Security Co.

A Knoxville-based technology startup that has received two contracts for its solar powered surveillance cameras

So how does this sun-powered surveillance system catch people in the act?

It is cellular-based, wireless, and comes with a removable solar panel and external lighting. Even though the majority of the devices have been sold to police and sheriff's departments for gang monitoring, graffiti prevention, and traffic control, it was originally conceived to prevent copper theft on construction sites. One place they hit is the breaker box, so this can just be set on the floor across from it and if anyone walks in the room the owner will know within literally 2 minutes.

What's the tip-off?

The device sends a text message to up to 10 phones or e-mail addresses simultaneously. It also sends a 30-second video so they can see what's going on in the room.

Don't people notice it?

If you remove the solar panel and lights, it's about the size of a lunchbox and you can sit it in the corner of the room and it will not make a peep. They have no idea they have set it off.

Is it fair to say that the solar surveillance equipment is just coincidentally earth-friendly?

Yes, the solar power was part of the design from necessity. Each camera device has a fairly large battery inside as its primary source of power. The solar panel simply keeps the battery charged so you can install it in the remotest of areas. You don't need electricity, an Internet connection, no nothing, just sunlight.

Will it fail if there's not enough sunlight to charge it?

Not these, no. I've had one operating for two years and it's never run out of battery. It will charge if it's overcast or even raining—they've really improved solar technology. It's not where it should be, but it's a lot better than even two years ago. The difficulty is if you need to detach it from the solar panel. Then you can plug it into the wall or let it operate for a week just on the battery. If someone unplugs it, it texts you, even in the middle of the night.

How did you come up with the idea?

I was trying to develop a doorbell for deaf people with a camera cell phone inside it. I ended up abandoning the idea because it would be too expensive for the end user.

A lot of people invent all the time but never seem to succeed. What's your secret?

I don't have a secret. I lost a lot of money on my first patent, a hand tool, and I'm a terrible marketer. My first successful invention was a system that allowed the deaf community to make text telephone and relay operator calls through cell phones. It just took off on the forums on the Internet; all word of mouth, and I had 2 million users when I sold. But it was nothing that I did.