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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.

[digg=http://digg.com/environment/10_Questions_for_Nanosolar_CEO_MartinnRoscheisen]

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

  1. I’m afraid I have to agree with Almeida, if Nanosolar (who I have been following for some time now) doesn’t go mainstream soon, another, possibly better technology could take it’s place while you are getting your sea legs. There is also a real chance the Chinese will pirate the IP and bring it to a hungry market at a price that you can’t compete with. Acting when the market is ripe is pretty key. Time to make your move Marty!

  2. V.Chokkavelu

    Are the above questions answered. If so where can i find the answer to these questions.
    My question is how can i have nano solar panel system for my house in St.Clairsville ohio 43950
    What is to cost for a home with two persons and five bed rooms. Chokkavelu

  3. Kent R. Corral,M.|D.

    Excellent and encouraging interview/article.Florida recently passed utility regulations requiring “net metering”.There are now a majority of states mandating this arrangement.Understandably nanosolar has pursued utility accounts as the first step. Still it would seem this technology if truly available at $0.99 kw/h should be “diffused” to every rooftop.Kent R. Corral,M.D.

  4. Georgia Barham

    Please give me information on how a hard working, intelligent young man, Tirey McInnes, could contact you for employment in the near future at Lubbock, Texas. Gratefully yours, Georgia Barham, 1816 Mojave Place, Irving, Texas 75061 phone 9727937743

  5. Georgia Barham

    Your product sounds great! First, I would like to know how my grandson, going to Texas Tech next year, could earn extra money, buying your product and installing in homes in Lubbock, Texas. He is a hard worker and eager to learn new ideas. Please inform me if he could possibly use your fine product to help finance his training in school.

  6. I’d also like to know the energy conversion efficiency of these solar film substrates. I remember doing work on optoelectronics and solid state electronics during my time at Univeristy, and remember typical bulk-technology processes for silicon p-n junctions achieving power efficiencies of between 10%-20%.

    What does concern me is the projected rate of manufacturing as well as the the lack of any real information on whether this technology will ever become available to the general public. I suspect their clients are more likely aligned towards the interests of government entities and energy companies who are keen on suppressing the availability of low-cost renewable energy supplies to the masses.

    There’s always China I suppose…

  7. R. Delaplaza

    WHERE ARE THE PANELS…? ? ? ? ?
    NOBODY HAS SEEN THEM YET.
    NO TECHNICAL SPECS SHEETS.
    NO DISTRIBUTORS.
    WHERE IS ALL THE ACTUAL PRODUCTION GOING??
    FRANCE? to their investors?
    WHY ALL THIS SMOKE AROUND THEIR PANELS?

    Could be that the Silicon panel manufacturers have bullied this guys to keep their prices high, or to protect their market?

    What is going on?

    Martin Roscheisen says, in Q # 10:
    We are lined up with the industry’s top system integrators as our partners, [who are they, we don’t see any Unisolar panels yet; and why they enjoy such exclusive rights to their product?] and it is clear we are going to be manufacturing capacity limited for about as far out as we can see.

    [why, if they have a WINNER solar panel, that can be manufactured in huge amounts using “roll to roll” technology, and have a line of investors at their doors? and what is keeping them from “doing it”.
    “technology greed”, patent problems, or technical problems?

    This is a fierce market and another perhaps even bigger breakthrough in solar panel technology can happen anywhere else at anytime, if they don’t jump on the bandwagon and get as much of their share as they can, and contribute to the clean energy development and IMPLEMENTATION, they could be out of business in a blink.

    Too much cautiousness is detrimental to any business, risk and win.

  8. What seems to have been missed is that the plant produces 1GW at 100 feet/min if it could get up to 2,000 feet/min which he says is theoretically possible, then he has a 20GW production facility for the same production cost as a 1GW. Not quiet but good enough this should seriously reduce the price of the modules. I would like to know the game plan are they going to wait until PV becomes, price competitive with grid electricity before they jack up the through put of the plant reduce price and gain market share or are they going to increase through put now and try and reduce price so that it is compatable with the grid now. I suspect that they will install more lines during the next few years subsidies for building in East Germany and the feed in tariff which will most likely be renewed this year is a nice easy safe easy way to do this and when PV become competitive with the grid. speed up the through put and drop prices and grab as big a share of the market as possible. I live right on the German boarder and when I go into the German village just over the boarder no more than a couple of hundred meters from where I live I see many houses with large PV arrays. A farmer I know has both the roofs of his barns covered in PV arrays. I only wish we had the same here in Holland.

  9. Cool!…

    Hope this new innovation reduces the demand/price of fossil fuels (i.e. Oil)

    So you leaches can can get hell out of the Middle-East & leave us the f**k alone!

    PS* I feel sorry for those poor souls where Indium is found!!!!!

  10. Dear Sir,
    With all the effort and money going to alternate, renewable energy development, I only hope you will be successfull in finally producing the goods, which are already advertised as quasi -available by your company!

  11. I’m amazed that I had to get all the way to the bottom of this blog to find someone with the same opinion as me, what a waste of my time reading it.

    I figure it’s kinda fishy, been following nanosolar for a long time now and we got nothing man.

    When the potatoe was introduced into France they told the pesants that it was food of royalty and built a fence around the feild. What do you know, people suddenly needed potatoes in a big way.

    I cant wait to see this company go public

  12. Blogspam

    HELLO CEO,

    FOR SOME REASON I AM UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT YOU ARE GOING TO READ THE COMMENTS TO A BLOG INTERVIEW AND TAKE SERIOUSLY PLEAS FOR EMPLOYMENT, PRODUCT, OR COLLABORATION OFFERS. ALSO, I AM NOT COMPUTER SAVVY ENOUGH TO NOT TYPE IN ALL CAPS! I AM LOOKING FOR WORK AND WOULD LIKE TO SELL THE SOLAR PANEL WHICH YOU MAKE. I WOULD ALSO LIKE TO HELP BUILD THEM. CAN YOU CALL ME WHEN YOU GO PUBLIC AND TELL ME YOUR STOCK SYMBOL. I WOULD LIKE YOUR STOCK.

    SIGNED,
    DUMB PERSON
    +312 65 5434 54
    [email protected]

  13. I am really hoping this company will make off-grid the desired solution instead of being grid tied. This will make rural america areas that are underserved in power have solar as a very attractive and affordable solution. Then you are going to see cheaper inverters that do 10kW for about $2,000 – about what PG&E charges for a transformer when solar becomes more viable. This particular company is going to help build a foundation for energy to come.

    At these prices rural co-ops can generate huge amounts of electricity at a very low cost too.

    This company is pretty exciting. Currently, the best deal I can find on solar panels from BP is about $3.00 per watt. I am really looking forward to those $2.00 per watt or less prices from this company. As an anti big government and anti-regulation type person, being off-grid is my preferred choice- being disconnected in the country.

  14. Dave Lawrence

    It appears to me that the company still has limited resources building the machines to manufacture the long sheets of film. They appear to me to want to maximize their manufacturing process and speed by only serving the needs of large power producers at present, so they will not be doing residential designs. Comercial applications would be easier and take less time to do during this first manufacturing phase. That may be why they do not have time right now to serve the needs of the small individual residential home market.

    If I were starting up a expected to be giant industrial manufacturing operation, I would want to maximize my manufacturing process also by only serving the commercial markets to cover more surfacr area of the earth with panels in these commercial operations.

    Electric companies must have green sources also, so maybe they are the perfect large customers for them to get on their feet as a business. Residential applications will come but later on. They will take up more time and a lot more employees to install.

  15. Chaim Sil

    Would the following be feasible?
    Establish PV solar farms to charge batteries to be used in electric vehicles? Could this approach using easily interchangeable batteries be used for public buses and trolleys?

  16. I’d love to throw a layer of this on the roof of my Prius, put in an extra battery, and drive those free miles. It’s sitting in the baking sun right now…

  17. Rowland Reeves

    Quick question:
    As an ex-solar energy lobbyist here in California from the 1970’s I’m totally thrilled with Nanosolar’s breakthrough technology. (Calif. Leg. 10% Tax Credit 1975) Things have come along way since those days. I would like to invest in Nanosolar. When is Nanosolar going public? Are there plans for an IPO? For a small investor such as myself it’s the perfect combination of Green Energy and financial participation in a company that has a real mission. I think the more people that become financially committed to this technology the more political pressure will build to break down the bureaucracy (especially on the local level) that makes it tough to install systems.
    Keep up the good work Nanosolar ! ! !
    Rowland Reeves

  18. Dear Mr. Roscheisen,

    We are from Brazil and at this moment we are looking for a manufactory of solar panels to bring into our country as our partnership. Next June 12th we are goint to China to visit 3 companies (Himin, Huayang and Linuo) they make the “tube” technology fo water heather and public light.
    To be in Brazil is a very important place to be, I meant that onlyu in Brazil we have 185 million people we lots of needs for electricity.Besides, logisticaly it is also the best place to be to cover the entire Latin America and the Caribbean.
    The labor in Brazil is very low comparing to USA!
    My question to you is: Do you have plans to expand your business into Latin America?

    Antonio A. Rapetti

  19. Indium for CIG is not in jeopardy. Stop your fear mongering! It is 3 times more abundant than SILVER! The Teck Cominco refinery in Trail, BC is the largest supplier. Also China is another source.

  20. It is quite obvious to me from reading Nanosolar’s PR blurbs that they plan on (or already have) dealing with the US govt. sector in the form of DARPA.gov, DOE.gov, and various US municipalities. As Martin already admits dealing with these entities can be a morass of bureaucracy. However, he has chosen to do this anyway.

    He mentions “high fences” around his products rolled-out to his customers. What the…? Is he worried about reverse-engineering by competitors? Let me tell you something… if you climb into bed with dogs you catch fleas!

    The topsy-turvy world of arguably corrupt US municipal town councils and arguably corrupt mayoral systems will certainly crush Nanosolar’s bottom line in no time flat! Dealing with the Bush Administration’s “science-advisers” at DOE and DARPA is like the kiss-of-death in this admittedly oil-soaked venue. They’d rather drill a oil well in a National Park in Alaska then invest into Martin’s miracle product.

    Yes they will (have) pony up the dough… but he’ll find the fences not so high, the security not so tight, the compartmentalization not so compartmented… IOW his invention will go the route of the infamous Nikola Tesla. It will just be shelved somewhere and totally forgotten by the people that count.

    USA is and probably always will be a oil-dependant nation NOT really interested in alternative energy sources. How can they get richer from a .99/watt technology? Martin really needs to unhook himself from this awful bandwagon and consider branching out in the brave new world of green technology and sell to small companies and private homeowners. Hell Fuel Cell Technology is moving faster than this and Bush has already put his sulfurous “hoof” of approval on it too. Bye bye Fuel Cells!

    Spooks

  21. I wish this company was public, I would buy stock in it, big time! I wish they made something like the Brunton 26 Personal Solar Panel. Its also good to know that the DOE is seriously investing in solar, especially with the current administration… Go solar!

  22. So, what happens when you use up all the CIGS material on earth or can’t get the material at a good price? It is not like I can run to WalMart and get a kilo of Indium. I don’t trust Nanosolar to solve any world energy problems. I just see a cash cow getting milked.