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February 14th, 2011
Solar startups pioneering photovoltaic materials are forced to make a choice when it comes to outfitting their lab with processing equipment. Do I buy new? Do I buy used? Or do I outsource R&D? These are tools and setups that cost hundreds of thousands–up to millions of dollars of investment. I have found that the best solution to startups confronting this problem may be Cleantech Prototyping.
Cleantech Startups | What they Need
Cleantech startups need prototypes to increase (investor) confidence. Confidence is built in a technology when it shows desired results with some reproducibility in an affordable, scalable process environment. After that, it’s easy to justify the nice equipment price tag. From my experience, cleantech prototyping is usually needed on three fronts:
1. Modification of a tool to accommodate a new process (i.e. making affordable equipment do what it wasn’t designed to do, i.e. fixtures, sample holders, heating, cooling, pressure…playing with PV=nRT). These are easy fixes.
2. A low-cost mimic of a production-level tool. Typically at under 10% the big-boy price. This means manual systems (<–my shameless plug) that can fit on a benchtop and yield repeatable results. These are fun jobs that yield high value tools.
3. Custom tool for making something that’s never been done before. This is the breeding ground of intellectual property. I love these jobs. And companies with this level of dependency on custom equipment usually want solid non-disclosure agreements and full rights to IP.
I concluded that cleantech prototyping services were the best solution after repeatedly going down the same process development paths with resource-limited startups. I hope to hear comments from any readers who have (or haven’t) gone through any of the following in this startup space:
Shared facilities | A Hassel
When they can’t afford the equipment, researchers can share facilities (at local universities such as Harvard or MIT for example) to deposit films, and use analytical tools. The prices are reasonable, but knowing whether the process environment is contaminated with silver, sodium, or the last user’s PB&J is a huge unknown. Needless to say, unknown variables don’t help when something isn’t working. Further, scheduling time at these facilities is burdensome, and startups are forced to sacrifice flexibility—one of their biggest attributes. Good R&D grunts will tell you they want control of all the process inputs. It is nearly impossible to do this in a shared facility.
Outsourced R&D | Expensive and slow
Alternatively, a startup can outsource non-vital operations of a manufacturing process. They let the pros handle upstream processes that are already—I say with great hesitation—standard to the industry. Like a chef putting on the finishing touches, the startup can let another lab, company, or a foundry do the prep work, i.e. scribing wafers, coating materials, or other steps upstream of their process. Sounds good, right?
Nope. It turns out that sourcing relationships are difficult to find in the materials R&D world. They require many months of proposal writing, or contracts that cut an arm off shareholders and put IP on the chopping block. Working with another company is tough because they are likely a competitor if they have any capabilities you need. Foundries do exist but their fees aren’t much better than finance rates on the $500K machine in the first place. And they’re slow. “We haven’t received the samples yet from [insert company X here]” is a poor excuse to board members who expect to see progress. Startups finally concede to the notion that they need to bring the capability in-house if they want to sprint forward and stop screwing around in a 3-legged race.
Cleantech Prototyping | Crucial to Startups
So as it turns out, the solar chef must do his own prep-work, AND do it on a budget—hence the Ikea knives and day old cuts from Costco. THIS is the environment that down ‘n dirty startups really work in. In this environment, significant advances are made when teams can quickly improvise processes with equipment modifications to try new experimental conditions. This means getting under the hood of the car and changing parts. FAST.
Custom equipment design is neither in the realm of PhD nor technician job duties—the guys who are typically staffed in an R&D startup. The expense of a full time engineering team is hard to justify when design needs are intermittent in the early stages. So to a lean and mean R&D startup, Cleantech Prototyping services are essential.
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