Remember early 2008 — when Barack Obama and John McCain were still US senators vying for the presidential nominations of their parties?
At the time, Frank van Mierlo was raising venture capital funding for a promising new company. Using technology developed at MIT, it wanted to make solar cells that more efficiently converted sunlight into electricity.
Three Oval Office occupants later, the company van Mierlo started is still alive — even though it has not yet found paying customers, and plans to set up production facilities have not materialized.
How did this Bedford company, originally called 1366 Technologies and now known as CubicPV, survive several extinction-level events in the cleantech sector?
Two big reasons: first, a hypothesis that the silicon-based solar cell, invented in 1954 at Bell Labs, is due for some fundamental upgrades. Second, a belief that only major innovations to solar cells can challenge the dominance of China, which has invested heavily to become the dominant supplier of low-cost solar power technology. “Frank can bring China-dominated PV manufacturing back to the US of A,” writes Bob Metcalfe via e-mail, referring to photovoltaics, another name for solar cells. Metcalfe, a tech entrepreneur and former venture capitalist, put some of the first money into Cubic in 2008, and still serves on its board.
But a third reason could be the sunk cost fallacy: Investors and government agencies that have injected about $200 million into the company over its lifetime may have been reluctant to write that off, given the possibility of future success. The most recent jolt of money, $25 million, came in late June, when van Mierlo’s company merged with a division of Hunt Consolidated, a Texas-based energy company, and changed its name to CubicPV. The new entity has 57 employees, about two-thirds of them in Massachusetts.
“With fundamental manufacturing innovations like this, the idea that it takes a while to get to market is OK,” says van Mierlo, an ebullient Dutchman. “We have made a ton of technical progress.” He also says that some of the company’s efforts to set up production facilities in various parts of the world ran into headwinds because of the steadily declining price of Chinese-made solar technology — in part a result of immense government support.
Initially, Cubic’s focus was a new manufacturing approach that involved pouring silicon into a mold to create a thin, gray 6-inch square wafer, a key component of the eventual solar cell. That wastes less material than the traditional approach, which entails slicing the wafer from a solid ingot of silicon. The company also developed a way to add texturing to the surface of the cell so that it could capture (and convert into electricity) more of the available light, rather than reflecting it away.
Now, the company is also talking up the potential of “tandem cells,” which have two layers, each tuned to make use of the different wavelengths of light that hit them — one visible light, the other infrared. Cubic believes that two layers could increase the efficiency of finished solar panels to 30 percent, from around 20 percent today — but adding an extra layer will also add cost. (A panel is a collection of solar cells mounted on a frame that you’d see installed on a rooftop or on the roadside.)
“You have encompassed in one company a material that dominates now ― silicon — and an intermediate term opportunity, in five years or less, that will allow the company to do tandem cells,” says Carmichael Roberts, another early investor in Cubic who is now one of the leaders of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $2 billion investment fund started by Bill Gates. Eventually, Roberts believes the company could make highly efficient single layer cells using perovskite crystals, an approach it acquired earlier this year as part of the merger.
But one challenge that Cubic and other developers of new solar technologies have always faced: Utilities and companies that build large power plants “are slow and risk-averse, and not quick customers on adoption,” says Ian Bowles, managing director of WindSail Capital Group, which provides funding in the energy sector but is not an investor in Cubic. Their expectation is that anything they put out in the field will still be generating at least 80 percent of its “like new” power output after two decades, which tilts the table in favor of proven technologies.
For that reason, when the renewable energy journalist and analyst Eric Wesoff watched a recording of a speech van Mierlo gave last year touting tandem cells as “the most important innovation in solar since solar as first conceived in Bell Labs,” he was skeptical. He and van Mierlo subsequently made a bet about how many of these tandem cells would be sold by the end of 2022.
“In his unfaltering optimism, and my unfaltering lack thereof, we agreed on a bottle of champagne,” Wesoff says. If there are two gigawatts of tandem solar cells sold by next December, not just by Cubic, but by any manufacturer, van Mierlo wins. “I think there will be tandem solar cells, but not on the timeline advanced by Frank,” Wesoff says.
Wesoff “is a great guy, but he is going to lose the bet,” van Mierlo says. “Tandem is the future. It’s all going to be tandem a decade from now.” (Van Mierlo accuses Wesoff of lowering the stakes from a case to a bottle of champagne, “because he knows he’s going to lose.”)
The CubicPV office is decorated with signs printed at various points in the company’s 13-year history. One features Paul Revere riding a horse, shouting, “Solar is coming!” Another showcases the six generations of technology Cubic has developed since it was founded — all with a goal of solving the important puzzle of how to make solar cells more capable and less costly, and get more of them out into the world. That’s more important than ever, given the United Nations report sounding the alarm about the catastrophic potential of climate change.
For Cubic’s chief executive and its investors, the proof point that will convince customers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on its technology is still just over the horizon.
Van Mierlo acknowledges that many of the solar power startups that were formed in in the first decade of the 2000s are now gone. CubicPV’s ability to survive is a point of pride. “How long did Amazon make losses?” van Mierlo asks. “There is a very good correlation between being successful and staying alive.”