NEXT Energy Technology CEO Daniel Emmett isn’t modest about his company’s first product: “It has the potential to fundamentally transform the way we think about buildings,” he says. But the materials and processes he and his team have brought from a lab at UC Santa Barbara to near-commercial-readiness just might be as revolutionary as he says.
NEXT Energy’s key innovation is an energy-harvesting photovoltaic coating that integrates directly into glass. The coating allows the majority of visible light to pass through, while capturing infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths and converting them into power. The result? Solar cells that are truly transparent. We spoke with Emmett about how it works, how he built the company without venture capital funding, and his hopes for the future.
Why is this technology a game changer?
Daniel Emmett: Buildings have historically been big producers of greenhouse gas emissions as a result of all their energy consumption. Now we can think about them becoming producers of clean, renewable, carbon-free energy. Windows and facades have always been a passive part of the building. Now we’ve turned them into an active feature that captures and makes use of the light that’s hitting the building anyway.
How is what you’re doing different? Isn’t it an idea that has been floating around for a while?
DE: It seems so simple and obvious; why wouldn’t you do it if you could? But until now, there hasn’t been a technology that can do it cost-effectively or, what’s most important for buildings, aesthetically. For architects, designers, building owners, and occupants, these windows need to be windows first. Second, they can become power producers. If you’re compromising in terms of aesthetics, there’s just not going to be a large market for that.
Other companies trying to tackle this challenge/opportunity have tried to put a square peg in a round hole by using conventional solar materials and technology. Silicone, for example, makes power very well, but it’s opaque and black. To get it to work on a window, they have to do tricks with it, like slice it into strips or pattern it. Putting an opaque pattern in the glass fundamentally alters the aesthetics of the window.
What we have is the first really aesthetically integrable technology. The other big piece is we’ve demonstrated excellent durability. Our coating will last for the life of the window. And we can do this at an incremental cost that pays for itself in one to three years, depending on tax incentives. Taken together, we have those three components — the aesthetics, the durability, and the cost structure — that haven’t existed before.
How have you been able to solve those problems when other people haven’t?
DE: Our innovation and intellectual property are the core materials. It’s kind of a mouthful, but these are “soluble, small-molecule organic photovoltaics.” Organic photovoltaic [OPV] materials simply means they are carbon-based semiconductors. Because they’re small molecules, they’re very stable, easy to purify into scale, and we get really consistent performance in terms of power production.
We do have a couple competitors doing small-molecule OPV, but we’re the first ones to be able to make these in a soluble form. Our competitors use a process that’s vapor-deposited or sputtered, which requires very expensive equipment, huge amounts of energy, high temperature, and has to happen in a vacuum. We print as an ink using traditional ink-printing processes that have been around for decades — in the photographic film industry, for example. We do it all at room temperature and at ambient pressure, on cheap equipment. That drives a lot of our cost advantage.
What are the raw materials for this OPV ink?
DE: Basically, it’s plastic. It’s that simple. It’s a higher, better use of plastic and petroleum than simply burning it in a car or making a Coke bottle. We’re using very little material: our active layers are two one-hundredths the thickness of a human hair. And it will produce power for thirty years.
You guys decided not to go after venture capital [VC] funding initially. Why? How have you funded the startup phase of this business?
DE: It was partly the timing of when we started the company. VCs were not funding new solar technology startups; there had been a lot of bad bets. It’s not like we didn’t talk to them, but we pretty quickly realized it wasn’t going to be the right fit for us. Because we had this model that doesn’t require huge amounts of capital, we were able to do it with friends and family initially, and then private investors, and then a lot of government grants really helped push us along. We got money from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, the California Energy Commission. We also got funding from a corporate strategic partner — a chemical company — and now we’re in the process of negotiating a partnership with someone from the glass industry. The tough market for VC funding turned out to be a nice silver lining, because now we’re lean and mean and we’ve got great investors.
How did you go about finding mission-aligned investors?
DE: We built an academic advisory board and a business advisory board and we used our network to get in front of people. We have a compelling story, not only in terms of the business opportunity but in terms of the potential social and environmental impact of this technology when it scales.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome so far?
DE: We had to think long and hard about where to start. Our core technology is a low-cost, earth-abundant material that can be used to produce power in new ways. The transparency is just one unique thing. The other is the way it’s coated: it can be printed on flexible substrates. When we started the company, we thought our first product would be a lightweight, portable, flexible solar material. It took us a couple years to figure out where the market most valued the material’s innovative properties and get to this window-use case. We got there by literally listening to the market and to our customers.
What was that listening process like?
DE: It’s just showing people what you have and what it can do, and hearing what they have to say. Validating your thesis. We’ve had an interesting recent example of that: For a variety of reasons, we thought residential window companies wouldn’t be a great market for us. Compared with commercial buildings, residences typically have a smaller window-to-wall ratio, have more rooftop space available, and their windows tend to have higher visible-light transmission rates. But we decided to validate that thesis. We’ve been having conversations with a number of residential window fabricators and, while we were partially correct, what we didn’t see was a different use-case for integrating our materials into their windows.
Increasingly, these companies are looking at smart windows that do things: auto open and close, automatic locks, a sensor for temperature or rain. Those things all need power. The manufacturers we talked to were very interested in integrating our material into the window, not to produce power for the whole house, but to produce power just for use inside the window itself, to power those sensors.
That’s an example of the kinds of conversations you have to have. And you have to have a lot of them.
When are you guys expecting to go to market?
DE: We’re about two years away from the window product for commercial buildings. It may be closer than that for some of the smart-window applications.
How do you think about that long horizon — on the order of seven years — between starting and going to market?
DE: It’s a little different than an app or software, which has a much quicker path to market. We spun this literally right out of university labs. We knew this was going to be a process. That’s because it’s based on hard science. Those plays just take longer; not as long as drug development, but they definitely take some time.
You’ve got to prove that it works, and then you’ve got to start to scale it, and you’ve got to drive up the performance features. We’ve done all that. We have working prototypes, we have different materials, colors, transparencies. We’ve demonstrated the exceptional stability of our materials through accelerated testing and extrapolation to showing thirty-year feasible lifetimes. Now the next phase is the exciting one, where we actually get to scale to a large commercial process and to larger pieces of glass.
What advice would you have for other folks at the beginning of their journeys?
DE: You’ve got to have a great team, great working relationships, and great communication. Not just the internal team, but the team you build around you of investors and advisory board members. Make that a priority, because you’re going to face challenges along the way.
The second thing is, you’ve got to believe passionately and desperately in what you’re creating. Failure is not an option. Be excited to come in and move the ball forward every day.
To what do you attribute your success so far?
DE: That’s jumping the gun to say “success so far.” Yes, we’ve made great strides, but I’m not going to say we’re successful until we’ve actually got a product in the hands of our customers that’s helping them transform underused assets on buildings into producers of renewable power.