A company co-founded by an Indian American student of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has won this yearâ€™s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition with its pitch for a yoga mat-like thin-film solar technology.
Such a technology could be transported in a roll, carried to the top of a building, and rolled out across the roof in a matter of minutes, slashing installation costs and dramatically expanding the places where rooftop solar makes sense, according to MIT News.
That was the vision laid out by the MIT spinout Active Surfaces, co-founded by Shiv Bhakta, an Indian American graduate student in MITâ€™s Leaders for Global Operations dual-degree program within the MIT Sloan School of Management and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering with Richard Swartwout.
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Active Surfaces is now leveraging materials science and manufacturing innovations from labs across MIT to make ultra-thin, lightweight, and durable solar a reality.
The $100K competition which took place May 15, is one of MITâ€™s most visible entrepreneurship competitions, and past winners say the prize money is only part of the benefit that winning brings to a burgeoning new company.
Speaking about their plans for commercializing an ultrathin film, flexible solar technology, Bhakta told MIT News, â€œSolar is one of the most broadly distributed resources in the world, but access is limited today.â€
â€œItâ€™s heavy â€” it weighs 50 to 60 pounds a panel â€” it requires large teams to move around, and the form factor can only be deployed in specific environments,â€ he said. â€œOur approach is to develop a solar technology for the built environment.â€
â€œIn a nutshell, we can create flexible solar panels that are as thin as paper, just as efficient as traditional panels, and at unprecedented cost floors, all while being applied to any surface. Same area, same power. Thatâ€™s our motto,â€ Bhakta said.
â€œWhen I came to MIT, my north star was to dive deeper in my climate journey and help make the world a better, greener place. Now, as we build Active Surfaces, I’m excited to see that dream taking shape,â€ he said.
â€œThe prospect of transforming any surface into an energy source, thereby expanding solar accessibility globally, holds the promise of significantly reducing CO2 emissions at a gigaton scale. Thatâ€™s what gets me out of bed in the morning,â€ said Bhakta.
â€œAfter winning the $100K, weâ€™ve gotten a lot of inbound contact from MIT alumni,â€ he said. â€œI think thatâ€™s my favorite part about the MIT community â€” people stay connected. Theyâ€™ve been congratulating us, asking to chat, looking to partner, deploy, and invest.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve also gotten contacted by previous $100K competition winners and other startups that have spun out of MIT that are a year or two or three ahead of us in terms of development,â€ Bhakta said.
â€œThere are a lot of startup scaling challenges that other startup founders are best equipped to answer, and itâ€™s been huge to get guidance from them,â€ he said.
â€œWeâ€™ve also gotten into top accelerators like Cleantech Open, Venture For Climatetech, and ACCEL at Greentown Labs. We also onboarded two rockstar MIT Sloan interns for the summer.â€
â€œNow weâ€™re getting to the product-development phase, building relationships with potential pilot partners, and scaling up the area of our technology,â€ he said.
â€œIn the next year, through those open-access facilities, the goal is to go from 100-millimeter width to 300-millimeter width and a very long length using a roll-to-roll manufacturing process. That means getting through the engineering challenges of scaling technology and fine tuning the performance,â€ Bhakta said.
â€œWhen weâ€™re ready to deliver a pilotable product, itâ€™s my job to have customers lined up ready to demonstrate this works on their buildings, sign longer term contracts to get early revenue, and have the support we need to demonstrate this at scale. Thatâ€™s the goal,â€ he said.