AmberWave Rises Again as Solar Startup: Insights from Investor Russ Wilcox

6/7/12Follow @gthuang

Has the sun set on the U.S. solar industry? Not in New Hampshire it hasn’t.

AmberWave of Salem, NH, has risen from the ashes of AmberWave Systems, a semiconductor company that started in 1998 and shut its doors in 2010 after raising some $91 million to develop “strained silicon” technology for faster and more energy-efficient computer chips. After spinning out and reincorporating under a slightly different name, the company is now applying its materials expertise to develop a new kind of solar cell.

AmberWave is led by CEO Tony Lochtefeld, an MIT PhD who was previously the vice president of research and chief technology officer at the old firm. (I didn’t hear back from Lochtefeld in time for this article, but hope to get more details from him down the road.)

I learned about AmberWave’s progress from Russ Wilcox, the co-founder and former CEO of E Ink, the venerable materials and display-tech firm (and MIT spinout) that was bought by Prime View International for $450 million in 2009. When Wilcox left E Ink in 2010, my colleague Wade Roush speculated that his next venture would be in alternative energy.

He was right. Wilcox (see left) surfaced this week as the new CEO of Transatomic Power, another MIT spinout, this one focused on producing energy from nuclear waste (more on that below). But in a recent chat, Wilcox was more interested in talking about AmberWave, for which he has signed on to be an advisor. Wilcox says he is also making his largest angel investment to date in the company, though he didn’t say how much. “Nuclear will take many years. But these guys can get production out in less than three years,” he says.

As the bankruptcy cases of Solyndra, Evergreen Solar, and most recently Konarka Technologies have shown, running a solar business is challenging to say the least. “Everyone’s down on solar because there’s a glut,” says Wilcox. But there have been some big changes in the industry in recent years. For one thing, he says, it used to be that the expensive part of the solar equation was the solar cell itself. “Now the cell is cheap, and what’s expensive is the installation,” he says. “One place where innovation will still pay off is in how to make [solar cells] more effective.”

To that end, AmberWave has shown at a lab scale that it can make a solar cell with an efficiency of about 34 percent—that’s the percentage of solar energy converted to electrical energy—using what amounts to a mass-market process, says Wilcox. That efficiency is much higher than the typical 15-19 percent achieved by commercial silicon cells; it’s closer to the 35-40 percent achieved by more expensive cells, such as those used to power satellites.

From what I can tell—if it really works—the key is AmberWave’s ability to take a strained silicon machine (or process) and add it to a solar-cell manufacturing process. I’m over-simplifying, but basically the strained silicon process adds a thin layer of super-performing material—Wilcox says it’s analogous to gold-plating—which presumably boosts efficiency by routing more electrons out of the cell faster, thereby producing more electricity. In principle, this sounds feasible.

The question is whether the company can build a real business around its manufacturing process. Wilcox says the solar cells are best suited for residential rooftops where space is limited and you want more bang for the buck. For starters, AmberWave could license its technology to big solar-cell manufacturers. Wilcox says the sales pitch is basically, “Take your existing factory and add two machines.” He adds, “I see that as imminently achievable.” (A precedent might be Innovalight, a Silicon Valley company that developed a new coating for solar cells that improves electron extraction by adding just one machine to the fab. The company had a successful exit last year when it was bought by DuPont.)

Meanwhile, Wilcox isn’t afraid to take the reins of a cleantech project whose sales are quite a bit further down the road. As the CEO of Transatomic Power, he is leading a startup that is trying to build a new kind of nuclear reactor—one that dissolves nuclear waste from existing reactors into a molten salt that, in principle, can be used to fuel fission reactions more efficiently than the solid fuel pellets used in conventional light water reactors. (The new reactor’s name, the Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor, reminds me of Marvin the Martian’s “Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.”)

As Wilcox explains, the basic principle behind the new reactor design was demonstrated successfully more than 50 years ago at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But the conventional design used today took off because of politics, he says: In the 1950s, President Eisenhower and the U.S. agreed to give other countries access to nuclear power in exchange for not developing nuclear weapons. That meant the U.S. “had to have an immediate product,” Wilcox says—which turned out to be the light water design used in the country’s early nuclear-powered submarines, which has had its share of problems.

A fascinating history lesson, to be sure. I pressed Wilcox for some lessons of his own—what did he learn from his 13 years at E Ink that he can apply to a totally different field?

The first thing is capital efficiency, he says. “Big projects take capital. The trick is not to raise it too soon, because you’ll spend it.” (E Ink raised eight venture rounds for a total of some $150 million in its day.) The second thing is risk-taking. “Don’t be afraid of risks, everybody has risks,” he says. “Take your riskiest aspects first. Confront your risks straight away and don’t delay.”

That said, Wilcox appears to be in cleantech for the long haul. “Nuclear reactors is a game of many years,” he says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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