Konarka Technologies

Konarka Hones "Major Assault" Strategy With Army Contract

08/18/2003 09:12 AM
By Jay Rizoli

The word light can mean illumination or not heavy, and the two uses rarely have any connection. But Konarka Technologies is applying technology that uses ambient light in the development of lightweight products.

The U.S. Army earlier this month tapped Konarka to develop its photovoltaic technology for a source of lightweight, mobile, renewable power for a number of military applications.


The average soldier in the field carries an extra 30 to 100 pounds, and a good deal of that is rechargeable batteries and backup power sources to run electronic equipment.

The trend in electronics has been toward miniaturization for 30 years, said Bill Beckenbaugh, Konarkas president and chief executive officer. One important departure that we hope to bring is more lightweight and lower cost.
Konarkas technology is based on the work of Swiss scientist Michael Grätzel a member of Konarkas board of advisers who discovered a type of solar cell based on dye-sensitized nanostructured ceramic layers. Nanometer-scale crystals of titanium dioxide semiconductor are coated with a light-absorbing dye and embedded in an electrolyte between electrical contacts to generate and store energy.

Its the basic Grätzel technology with nanotechnology, Beckenbaugh says.

Konarka has further enhanced the technology by developing photovoltaic cells on a lower-cost, flexible thin film and other lightweight plastics rather than on the glass or silicon traditionally used with photovoltaic cells. Dye-sensitized photovoltaic cells are also efficient across a wider spectrum of light and are operational indoors as well as outdoors.

The technology portends a lightweight, low-cost product perhaps half the cost of other technologies and a range of possibilities for soldiers in the field.

Because Konarka technology is flexible it could be applied in a lot of ways, such as on a vehicle or in a photovoltaic poncho, said Bic Stevens, a member of Konarkas board of directors, an investment professional at Cambridge-based venture capital firm Zero Stage Capital and a prime mover in Konarkas evolution as a company.

The company that would become Konarka was conceived in 2000 by the late Sukant Tripathy, a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and founder of the schools Center for Advanced Materials. Having worked with solar technology and materials for more than a decade, Tripathy was ready for commercial development and had sufficiently impressed investors at Zero Stage Capital with his idea.

So when Tripathy drowned while swimming in Hawaii a month before launch, friends, colleagues and investors carried on.

What came about was the sense from his widow, his friends and technologists that we could kind of put together a company in his memory, Stevens said.

Konarka, named for a temple in Tripathys native India, launched in summer 2001 with a quarter of a million dollars from Zero Stage.

We were able to set up a strategy at a very early time that it would not be a solar company but a materials company, Stevens said. Dr. Tripathy sought to put the Grätzel technology on plastic. From day one the concept here was a manufacturable, scaleable and high-throughput manufacturing process.

Konarka first recruited a technology team but no CEO, focusing on acquiring as much IP as possible first.
Ultimately Konarka recruited Beckenbaugh, whose experience was in manufacturing research and develop- ment. Not a solar guy, Stevens says, but again, it was not a solar company but a primordial soup of lots of different technologies.

Now Konarka is on the fast track, with plans to have functional prototypes for the Army by the end of the year and new customers in 2004. And Stevens said that many facilities that are already set up to produce film could be used for production, adding speed as the company takes advantage of existing infrastructure.

As we get there, we will be able to address more and more markets, eventually maybe putting (the technology) on rooftops and competing with the power grid, Stevens said.

This is not intended to be a small player or a niche market but rather a major assault on existing markets, and we think we have the technology to do that.


Mass High Tech