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10 Questions for Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen

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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.


116 Responses to “10 Questions for Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen”

  1. Adjunct articles I have seen stated that the actual costs of production are achieving $0.30/watt. Out the door pricing is suggested at $0.99/watt. If 20 year longevity is achieved, with no drastic reduction in sent out efficiency, then you have done a good solve. Some at this blog have made some very inaccurate statements regarding the overall economics involved. Traditional coal plant technology ‘used’ to be at around $1/watt installed. That figure now is over $2/watt installed, for new plant. Other ‘thermal’ options are ballparked now at $1/watt installed and can achieve approximately 50% to 60% efficiency, in a combined cycle mode. One big differentiator however, key one might say, Nanosolar’s product does not come with an associated gaseous or liquid or coal based fuel bill every month. Nanosolar’s solution for the power sent out will not fluctuate in price every 15 minutes as a function of the cost of some underlying thermal based fuel market. Hence, if the reliability, durability and efficiency is there then the installed capacity capex being offered up by Nanosolar should have the likes of GE and Siemens quite concerned. It should also have traditional utilities with large thermal combusting prime movers edging toward the telephone to contact their political hacks to protect themselves with all sort of BS stranded asset cost pricing and permitting and interconnect hurdles. It is really that simple. If the efficiency is there in say a range of 20%, or better, the Capex is already in a range to support the lack of Opex costs (fuel). Hope it goes Nano…

    …and yes, an entrepreneur should be able to benefit from his efforts at developing intellectual property. Intellectual property does not belong to the state, but rather is developed and delivered to the ‘masses’ in such marketable form as to enable the benefits to be realized. A top down form of government, of any sort, is inefficient from the start and generally inhibits progress.

  2. I want to see this technology (or a similar one?) succeed. It’s about time someone came up with something that promises to bring solar energy use into the real world at an affordable(?) price. I am somewhat disappointed the technology (so far) requires such exotic raw materials, since the obvious limitations of such will undoubtedly become roadblocks along the way. Too bad (as others have alluded) nobody has yet figured out a way to harness solar energy in similar ways that plants do it (they’re working on it!). Meanwhile, I think this bears close watching. If D. Matterhorn’s comment (see post of 8/5/07) is correct, the world might be being “duped” again by another “wannabe”. Hmmmmm….time will tell, I guess.

  3. ~ Wrong Paradigm Marty R IMO.

    • Do Agree:
      -Quality (always) = *Far More Lastingly Important than
      ‘Quick to market’, mfg capacitty, et al.

    Wrong Paradigm refers to:
    -Focusing on `Major, Lg Scale Clients decision.
    – Far Better Risk/reward profile IMO exists in Hm Owners as

    *Main Consumer Markating focus .
    “We”(consumering J.Q.Public:

    -*MUST HAVE Specific NUMBERS.
    ~ What(ft & inches BTW)
    – Dimensions are:
    100, 200, etc, Watt modular sections, what V.?, + how Soon Available, & @ co$t of.?.
    -(via Direct to End User markating.
    What challenging *Opportunities lie ahead.?.
    MY Guess:
    “The Shadow (‘panel’wise) knowwws.”

  4. Ron Waldron

    I have, as many, many other people been waiting for you to finally come through with this technology to become available to the world. I so much want to become involved with your company and am salivating for the chance to purchace even one of your panels. I would very much appreciate the first opportunity to do so. In the interim I would appreciate your recomendation of the next best solar panels available now as I am building a trout pond that needs oxygenation.

  5. Martin,

    I’d like to politely ask for more detail please on what you meant by the term ‘scalable’ in reference to solar markets in your final answer. Just seeking more information to understand this please. I live in Southern hemisphere, so not familiar with the setup in Spain or Germany, and I’m unlikely to get there in this lifetime to see them.
    Any info and comments you care to reply with? Or appropriate weblinks?? Thanks.
    [email protected]

  6. I’ve worked with folks installing multi-crystal silicon PV for over 20 years and durability has never been an issue. On the other hand I’ve watched thin-film panels go through three generations of design with poor durability and virtually no improvement. Is Nanosolar’s technology more of the same? I’ve seen lots of hype on pricing, and a bit on efficiency, but nothing about durability. What’s the power loss over time at a set irradience level? Where would I find out? How good is $0.99/watt if it lasts only 4 years, and multi-crystal silicon is $4.00, lasting easily 25 years? I use nano-particle batteries in our electric trikes (A123Systems cells in DeWalt lithium battery packs) so I’m very juiced on the technological possibilities, but with the batteries I’m sure of the improvements (VAST) since I can actually USE them NOW. These panels won’t “catch fire” with the public, installers, distributors, or smart investors until some more hard questions are answered.


    I have read the very valuable comments coming from very knowledgeable and experienced persons.

    I would like to buy the product for making modules for applications for which I have urgent requirements.

    Please let me know that you would be interested in making your product available to me and when.

  8. Dear Mr M. Roscheisen,

    I was in contact with you a month ago in order to participate in the commercialisation of your solar panels.
    In early 80’s I was commercial man in charge of Nokia’s TV section, developping bizz with our low consumtion 14 inch CTV’s. My technical man at that time was Mr Markku Talvo still at Nokia, I left 05/95.

    Over the Xmas holidays we met and I would like very much to be involved in your bizz as independent operator in Europe. My commercial territory was everything south of Germany in Europe and “rest of the world”.

    Better 2008, Teuvo Hyvonen, mob +358 44 546 13 43

  9. Till this point in time, Looks like either of the 2 things:

    1) An Arrogant, Greedy bunch of capitalists, trying to keep all the technology and profits for themselves
    (I give it in writing, here, that they will miserably fail to do so, untill they involve the masses)

    2) All of this 1$/W is a ‘BS’ mirage. Either it is not technically feasible, or not possible to scale up, due to (raw material) limitations.

  10. One simple question.
    When will this product be available to the average end user.? Eg: A home owner.
    It is not the mega users that will build industries in the future, but the small individuals.

  11. Indiana Dave

    Still the question remains: how effecient are the panels?

    Also was it mentioned the wholesale price would be $.99 per watt. I wonder what the full retail price would be to consumers?

    Hey, I live in the Indiana. Want to use my home as an example? Feel free to contact me.

  12. David Folding

    Nice job Martin, controlled production ramp to prove viability and stability prior to making a major move. Absolutely nothing wrong with being well compensated for hard work and innovation!

  13. I currently own shares in Emcore (EMKR), and World Water & Solar (WWAT.OB).

    I have been watching Nanosolar for several months with great interest. I am a Realtor representing a number of builders and a very large developer in my region. The respective websites can be found here:

    Southern New Mexico is an IDEAL area for photovoltaics due to both elevation and weather conditions. I plan to utilize photovoltaics on my next personal residence. As a realtor, I have many inquiries about “Green Construction”. Additionially, the real estate market in Las Cruces, NM is pretty solid, in SPITE of what has been happening in the national arena. Las Cruces is a top retirement destination and additionally, has White Sands Missile Range and NASA test facilities contributing to our employment base.

    I am interested in several things:

    1. Is nanosolar going to go public? I am interested in investing in the company.

    2. The cost/watt is VERY affordable. What is the efficiency rating? How does it compare to the fresnel lense competitors as far as MW/Acre?

    3. How durable is your product? What is the life-expectancy of the cells? How does it compare with Emcore or Spectralab’s products?

    4. As a Realtor, member of the Las Cruces, NM Chamber of Commerce, and Las Cruces Home Buider’s Association, I am also interested in the possibility of marketing your product.

    There is no question about the need for A/E and solar appears to be the most practical for mass-consumption. I find it VERY intriguing that GOOGLE has chosen to invest 1% of their market cap into A/E.

    Hopefully, congress will extend the solar tax credits again this year but given the cost/watt of your product, Nanosolar should not be adversely affected without it.

    I thank you in advance for correspondence regarding the above-mentioned topics.

  14. Excuse my skepticism. They say they are in production, but first year’s product already sold. Sounds like smoke and mirrors to me.
    What USA needs desperately is US$1/watt solar. At that price, I and several hundred thousand others will go solar. At US$1/Watt solar would finally be competitive with coal utility price. No tax breaks or subsidy required.
    I would like nothing better than to see my local electric company, Alabama Power, shut down their coal fired pollution generators. These bastards, and thier parent company, The Southern Company, have spent untold millions of dollars lobbying politicians and in court fighting upgrades to thier coal fired generators that would reduce emissions. And they are winning !!!
    I will belive Nanosolar when I see the ads in Home Power for US$1/Watt solar panels. Not before.
    I have space for $3K of ’em on my roof.

    Birmingham, Alabama

    There are two main poster types here: First there are insightful comments and questions, then there are ding-a-lings spouting off about how they’d like to Work For or Invest In this company, or How Unfair the world is. Gimme a break. Like a blog comment section is gonna get any of you closer to your goals. Stop wasting everyone’s time who came to learn from insightful posts.


    Can any one from nanosolar tell me when these panels will be available to the public , and also the efficiency .
    My 2500 watt panels are about “20 years old ” and I would like to replace them.


  17. I am very interensted as an investor not only as a
    “green minded” occupant on planet earth, but as a conscientious user of our limited natural resources. Any help with regard to your company or any other privately or publicaly held company would be greatly appreciiatee.
    Sincerely, a fellow carbon based lifeform.
    Sandford N. Skadsem

  18. julian c. holmes

    Thanks for the introduction to Nanosolar. I am a 77 year old retired government physicist and would like to construct a receptor of panels to produce 100 to 1000 watts of power as a beginning test of my ability to produce useable solar-electric power for my home here in Maine. If I construct my own panels, I will need to know the individual cell size range, and cell efficiency, environment needed for cell protection in panels, and costs for the cells — or for panels. The best of luck to you at Nanosolar! JCH

  19. Brad Benson

    I wonder what the plans for the future dissemination of Nanosolar’s technology really are. They could combine traditional capitalism’s profitability paradigm, with a cooperative low cost licensing program to help the world deal with the energy / environmental crisis we have gotten ourselves into. They would have the opportunity to build some very interesting caveats into such a scheme.

    I too wonder about personal investment opportunities and if there is anywhere to sign up, so that folks like me can be notified when the opportunity does opens up.

    I would also like to see answers to the technical questions the skeptics are asking .

    Exciting Stuff.

  20. Dependence on dinosaur blood (petroleum) is creating
    environmental and political catastrophes worldwide. Please do everything within your power to save the world. Just 9% of desert states’ land area covered with
    nanosolar panels would produce enough electricity to
    supply all the energy needs of the entire USA. Perhaps
    you can team up with Tesla Motors, and make more of
    those all electric cars at a cheaper price. $100,000 for a
    Tesla Motor car is too high. Mass production should make a significant price reduction and make them available for the masses of people. All the best.

  21. Raghavendra Rao

    Nanosolar seems to have done some wonderful work and if the cost is as attractive as it is claimed and if with volume production there is going to be no bottlenecks for the materials used in the process which are all rare metals, their products are ideal for a country like India which needs to make very large investments in the power sector to create new capacity of more than 300,000 MW over the next ten years, at the same time keeping carbon emission low to keep its contribution to global warming low. Perhaps Nanosolar will take a hard look at intensely focusing on India in their marketing efforts.

  22. I would like some numbers. What is the efficiency of the cells. What surface area would be needed to supply the 3kw of your average home. Does .99c per watt mean that a home could be supplied for just under 3 grand?

  23. This is very intriguing concept and if true would change the stance of solar as we know it, but until people can actually get there hand on it it’s all BS. I would like to develop and sell full power systems for RV’s and smaller systems for portable power sources, systems that are to bulky heavy and fragile with the current technologies

  24. Once Nanosolar’s factory is actually in successful production, licensing the proven technology to others is the way to go so that the building of nuclear reactors and coal fired plants stop.
    Instead of building a 10bn-euro (£6.6bn) nuclear fusion reactor in France, build factories to produce electricity from the existing nuclear fusion reactor called the Sun.
    Enough PV energy production would have the beneficial side effect of reducing the Sun’s power to heat the earth, directly (the storage of the power generated in batteries, capacitors and the electrical grid) and indirectly by the elimination of CO2 emissions and construction of energy consuming
    objects (plants consume sunlight in order to grow, nanotech devices could “grow” with the PV electricity).
    The result would render Al Gore as poor a prophet as Thomas Rohr Mathus.

  25. “It sounds like setting up for pure profit. They don’t want to open source their technology for the betterment of the world. Very selfish old fashioned capitalism of the robber baron era.”

    I think my lower eyeball muscles just pulled loose from the force of them rolling up into my head. Everybody should assemble expensive teams of top talent, take huge risks and innovate, then give it away! If only we were more like the old Soviet Union, then they’d be riding the wave of the future with Longone!