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Martin Roscheisen, CEO of thin film solar company Nanosolar, founded the startup five years ago when solar was nowhere near the hot topic it is today. He managed to fund the company with at least $100 million from venture firms like Benchmark Capital and Mohr Davidow and individual investors like Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and entrepreneur Jeff Skoll.
The Austrian citizen born in Munich is also a long time Internet entrepreneur who already founded three startups with a combined value of more than $1.2 billion. In an email interview he answers 10 questions for us:
Q). You were one of the first Valley entrepreneurs to focus seriously on green tech – If you had to start a clean tech company in 2007, and not 2002, what would you do differently?
A). I know very little about anything in greentech other than solar. If I had to start a solar company in 2007, I would take a pass. This industry is in a very different stage now. This is going to be like the DRAM business much more quickly than many may realize. I have a hard time seeing how anyone can be successful in solar who isn’t truly in volume in 2008 with a very mature, very cost-efficient technology.
Q). Before Nanosolar you were an Internet entrepreneur – what are the lessons that you’ve learned in that industry that have helped you most when you moved into clean tech?
A). Hiring for “raw talent” (and sense of urgency and drive to win) over “experience”. Being disciplined about not overhiring. Focusing on business not busyness. Quickly ignoring all sorts of miscreants. Accelerating momentum without spending a dollar on marketing. A few other things.
Q). In the thin film industry there are several players like Miasole or SoloPower that are looking to build the next CIGS thin film technology. What will make the difference in which technologies win the deals?
A).An IEC-certified panel product available in near-term 100MW volume at a fully-loaded cost point in the sixties [cents/Watt] or less so that one can profitably sell at a $.99/Watt wholesale price point. There’s no chance a process technology based on a high-vacuum deposition technique is going to make this. The window of opportunity for that more conventional approach to CIGS existed perhaps two years ago in the form of the chance of getting to market earlier with such more incremental technology.
But by now, the industry has moved on generally and Nanosolar is there with far better third-generation process technology that took a $150-million deep-dive into very science-intense research and development to develop, and that momentum gap that will continue to broaden fast.
Q). The thin film industry has seemed to undergo delays in general – has the time to production taken longer than you expected, or are critics being unreasonable?
A). It is correct that there’s at least one journalist/blogger running the danger of being remembered in history as the one who scolded Carl Benz for being a month late with the first automobile. Thin film solar cells are an amazingly advanced and complex technology that even the brightest groups of people in the world can find unusually challenging. Furthermore, developing materials processes and building manufacturing tooling and operations simply does not happen on software or consumer electronics development cycles.
Especially not for a profoundly transformative new technology such as Nanosolar’s. So not even our own investors care really all that much about whether we’re a bit late or not; it’s more all about getting there safely. That said, it turns out that we have executed very well and are very close within our internal timeline originally proposed to our investors in 2005.
Q). A report from the Information Network said that delays in thin film have “soured venture capital firms and other equity investors who had hoped for faster returns on investments.” Thoughts?
A). I don’t know about “souring” but if anyone expected a materials based business to deliver YouTube type investment IRRs, they might have put their hopes in the wrong place. On the other hand, a company like Nanosolar has a credible path towards shipping $10 billion worth of high-ops-margin product to strong commercial customers with a sales model that could not be simpler and more predictable; and at that point the company would perhaps still only have a one-digit market penetration percentage. So there will be attractive returns for long-term investors of all sizes. But no overnight killing. We have turned down a ton of interested investors who we did not feel had the right outlook.
Q). Will Nanosolar begin production this year?
A). Yes, we’re on track with this. Do not expect an Apple style product launch though. Our first 100,000 panels are already set to go into closed, private, utility-scale deployments, with a tall fence around them and not much accessibility to the general public.
Q). Does the company need to raise any more money?
A). We are fully funded for reaching profitability. We may choose to raise additional capital for accelerating our capacity expansion.
Q). An analyst told me that thin film solar companies in the U.S. are worried about price competition with Chinese solar firms. . . .is that true and something Nanosolar thinks about competitively?
A). If I ran a company based on solar thin films deposited in high-vacuum chambers, I’d worry too. Because [Chinese market leader] Suntech achieves better capital efficiency today with conventional silicon-wafer based solar factories than a typical thin-film vacuum line. That’s a problem right there. At Nanosolar though, we have a nanoparticle-based printing process that is 5-10x more capital efficient on the total line. So we have a good delta.
All things being equal, given the $/kg economics of solar panels, I don’t think the competitive end game is to be shipping them from China. The end-game winners will be optimized for net working capital days and proximity to customers. (Btw, shipping from China costs ten times as much as shipping to China these days…) The middle game will be dominated by quality issues; this is a product that people expect to last for decades.
Quality is quite hard to do with the kinds of manual factories that are behind the capital efficiency of Chinese production lines. I see a lot of big customers in Europe quite unhappy with Chinese panels. That all said, my general rule on China is that one has to recheck all of one’s assumptions about China about once every three months.
Q). The company’s chief scientist Chris Eberspacher joined Applied Materials and some bloggers were wondering if the company is losing its core startup talent. Thoughts?
A). I don’t think that’s the case. There may have been a bit too much blue-sky blogging on that by some. Perhaps the following background helps to clarify all of this a bit:
Chris Eberspacher is a 20-year PV industry veteran who joined us 2.5 years ago as an R&D group manager at a time when our technology was already in full development and the technical roadmap established. His initial review of the many things we had started doing concluded that this all makes a tremendous amount of sense, has a lot of distinct advantages, and that we should proceed with exactly these plans without incorporating any of the work pioneered by Chris himself.
It turns out that things continued like this. Many of our most significant advances and breakthroughs came from intensely trying new things often diametrically counter to any beliefs. So our core engineering culture got reinforced very much around questioning the past, not assuming anything, and fundamentally not at all that much valuing the past 20 years of solar research. Chris still managed to be part of this for a good amount of time, with him in particular representing us externally very well.
But the internal leadership issue ultimately boiled over late last year after our pilot line team started producing product-quality cells that were more efficient than those produced in the lab by the research team managed by Chris. Lab cells are supposed to be steps ahead not behind the pilot-line cells. So our key engineers, our board, etc. ended up concluding that Chris, for all his experience and industry stature, had to be replaced with one of our younger guys who was the de facto research group leader anyway already.
We did a reorg and moved Chris into a non-operational role. We accepted that he most likely may have larger ambitions that the scope of that. Sure enough, he decided to resign the next month and started looking for a new job. Two more months later he landed at Applied. I actually helped him with getting the job at Applied. He’s going to do very well there among other 20-year solar-industry veterans and presumably a culture that values that kind of experience more than we ever did.
Our own lab team is styling now. And our pilot line running even better. For our first product, the pilot line matters foremost of course. So none of all of the above really affects our product introduction all that much. But we also want to continue to be a powerhouse of lab innovation in the style that’s proven to work best for us: Mostly driven by smart kids straight out of school who we give all the tools and toys to try crazy new things; plus just a thin dose of managers who know how to earn their respect.
Q). Do you have customers lined up to purchase the product, and if so which companies?
A). We are lined up with the industry’s top system integrators as our partners, and it is clear we are going to be manufacturing capacity limited for about as far out as we can see. There’s presently really only two truly scalable solar markets in the world — Germany and Spain — and we do a lot there. Being a scalable market is today as much about feed-in-tariffs as about the administrative framework; tomorrow, with grid-parity PV systems, it is primarily about the latter.
For the United States to also become a truly scalable market, some ingrained bureaucracy stands in the way for that still — everything from 1920s-era conduit-around-cables and grounding requirements to insanely complicated town-by-town permitting processes. It’s hard to believe that California is more bureaucratic than Germany — but it is so in solar power. Fortunately, people are beginning to realize this and so change is possible even if it affects electric code rules designed around 1920s electric technology.