Sunpower founder Dick Swanson, often called the father of the U.S. solar industry, visited Cyclotron Road in May as the inaugural speaker in our founder speaker series. These talks feature current and former technical founders discussing their experiences starting hard technology companies. In an entrepreneurship ecosystem whose archetypes are often software entrepreneurs, these speakers are meant to serve as examples of excellence for our teams and present a mosaic of the myriad challenges and pathways to market for energy technologies based on materials science, chemistry, industrial biotechnology, and other hard science fields.
Swanson spent two hours with our group in a wide ranging discussion that covered everything from cost modeling, to manufacturing, to how one defines personal success. Here are three takeaways from our conversation with Dick:
1. It's never too early to build a cost model.
"At the end of the day, all of these things are economic problems, not scientific problems. You have to think more like that. ...
... Even if your cost modeling is crude, it's important to go through that exercise and refine, so you see the lay of the land... it will help you think of what you're doing as a cost problem."
2. Selling a real product to a customer can be thrilling, and just a rewarding as doing basic research.
"Honda came in and said, 'We know you make the most efficient cells. Can you cover our [solar] race car?' We said, 'Yeah!'. Then we had to make the cells. We needed to make 7000, and we'd made maybe 20. ...
... this is where the academic view starts to hit reality. We started having meetings about how many shifts [in the fab] it would take to meet the [production] schedule and I suddenly realized that we were completely clueless about how to make this [So, we bought in] an operations guy who [had] started fabs for National Semiconductor and Cypress. He was unbelievable. ...
... Within weeks we had two shifts running in the fab. We met the program goals and Honda went on to win the race by a day. It was fabulous and, when we came down from it, we realized doing that was more fun than all the research in the lab [we'd] ever done. It was just a ball."
3. Keep learning, keep having fun.
"The future is so amorphous, you can't spend a whole lot of time thinking about personal success. You should look at two things: 1) Are you learning a lot? And I think in most startup environments you do, so you can't be wasting your time if you're learning. 2) Are you having fun? If you're not, you should rethink the whole thing because you won't be successful. You only succeed at things when you're having fun and you dive in all the way"