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Inside A Solar-Cell Startup's Success

Article by Dylan GerstleyJune 18, 2018

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A startup that’s figured out how to make solar cells at a very low temperature is following the entrepreneurial process at the University of Delaware because of its international renown for more than 45 years of research and innovation in the space.

“I came to Delaware from India after completing my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering,” said Abhishek Iyer, who is working on his PhD in electrical engineering after obtaining a master’s last year. University of Delaware is the home to a world-renowned solar research lab. “I always wanted to be associated with a place that was fantastic for solar, and when I got in, it was a no-brainer that I was attending.”

Iyer, co-founder of SHIO (an acronym created from initial letters of the co-founder’s last names), a solar tech company that develops low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells, won first place and $50,000 at LaunchR on April 27. The Rutgers student-run clean technology innovation contest is funded by the United States Department of Energy. Iyer’s SHIO team consists of James Hack, an engineering doctoral student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; David Angel, a doctoral student in Materials Science and Engineering; and Meixi Chen, who recently graduated with a PhD in Chemistry. SHIO was able to take part in innovation workshops and consult with mentors in the green technology space before pitching to an expert panel of judges, but the story of SHIO starts long before its participation in LaunchR.

Iyer started at the University of Delaware in a master’s program, but he soon found himself shifting to a doctoral program after working with his eventual mentor for SHIO, Dr. Robert Opila, Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering. The pair quickly developed a high-potential solar technology that eliminated some of the efficiency issues that so often plague the green technology.

Iyer explains the advantage his research offers: “Our unique value proposition is the fact that we can fabricate our solar cells around room temperature, as opposed to greater than 1000 degrees Celsius for a conventional solar cell. The potential cost savings are about 40% via the elimination of high capital-intensive tools and operational costs attached to them.”

The SHIO technology focuses on providing high performance in a cost-effective package. The promising research early on in Iyer’s work inspired conversations with peers in his community and industry. 

Iyer had a discussion with some professors and other students about the impact of their research. “We learned about Hen Hatch, a competition and saw it as an opportunity to further explore the impact of our research, so I developed the presentation for the pitch and made it to the semifinals in 2016.”

Iyer’s appearance as a semifinalist in Hen Hatch, the University of Delaware Horn Entrepreneurship premier startup competition. Hen Hatch provides participants with the opportunity to make connections and collect feedback on their ideas. By competing in Hen Hatch, Iyer was able to connect to and learn from many investors and experts in the field. SHIO did not progress to the finals for a chance to receive prize funding, but the promise of the venture became evident.

“I must have sounded like a scientist just bragging about his research with no idea of how to make money from it,” said Iyer with a laugh. “The judges thought we had an interesting idea that would work well once we were given entrepreneurial help, and Dan Freeman and John Currie convinced us to apply for the NSF I-Corps program.” Dan Freeman is the Founding Director of Horn Entrepreneurship and John Currie has offered guidance to students in a startup advising role at Horn Entrepreneurship.

Following Hen Hatch, Iyer applied for a grant from The National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Sites program, which provides students resources, advice and modest funding to pursue the commercialization of scientific research. Horn Entrepreneurship manages the NSF I-Corps programs at the University of Delaware.

After finishing the NSF I-Corps Sites program, Iyer then took SHIO through the extensive seven-week customer discovery program at the NSF I-Corps Teams level. Customer discovery is the process of speaking to and learning from potential customers to adapt the idea to best fit the needs and wants of the market. Iyer worked with team member James Hack, College of Engineering; Keith Modzelewski, then a Horn Entrepreneurship adjunct professor; and Dr. Opila. The venture was able to test and get feedback on the proposed hypothesis to better improve the concept. Iyer, who was awarded best Entrepreneurial Lead for his NSF I-Corps group, credits his team and other supportive individuals for the early success of SHIO.

“Keith Modzelewski was instrumental in developing the best and most optimized customer discovery interviews. He really helped us get to the essence of what we wanted to dig into very quickly. Christina Pellicane, Director of Commercialization Programs [at Horn Entrepreneurship], was also very helpful, and she encouraged us to apply for the Blue Hen Proof of Concept program. I was really lucky to work with Dr. Opila as well; he really dove headfirst into the project with us. The support and help from James Hack, co-entrepreneurial lead for SHIO, was also unparalleled.”

The SHIO team won additional funding through the NSF I-Corps program and gained access to more experts in the industry. Through Horn Entrepreneurship, Iyer and the SHIO team were introduced to Lou DiNetta, who assists students with federal grant writing. DiNetta now serves as a co-founder of SHIO, bringing more than 40 years of experience in the photovoltaics industry to the team.

Eventually SHIO were inspired to apply to LaunchR, the Rutgers-student run clean technology competition. The solar tech venture was quickly fast-tracked to pitch as one of the top six teams in front of a panel of judges from the United States Department of Energy and experts in the clean tech space.

“The other teams were from top-tier universities with some impressive technology, but none of our ideas overlapped. We were able to take first place because of all of the extensive preparation work we had done, because of the involvement and support of Horn Entrepreneurship. When they announced SHIO as the winners, I almost teared up. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Winning the competition has entered SHIO into the Department of Energy’s national competition. SHIO was also invited to the national finals of the Department of Defense’s clean technology pitching competition. The venture hopes to resume researching in earnest this summer. Both finals will be held on June 27 and 28 at Rice University, Houston.

“We never thought we would be doing what we’re doing today,” said Iyer. “We were loving what we were doing, seeing the commercial impact of our research. It was really rewarding, and if I had stuck to just research, I would have never been able to see if the industry actually cared about what I was researching.”

Horn Entrepreneurship provides the UD community opportunities to explore the potential and power of their ideas through programs, grants, mentoring, teamwork and support.

 

About Horn Entrepreneurship

Horn Entrepreneurship serves as the University of Delaware’s creative engine for entrepreneurship education and advancement. Built and actively supported by successful entrepreneurs and thought leaders, Horn Entrepreneurship empowers aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs as they pursue new ideas for a better world.