Staff from UCSB’s Office of Technology & Industry Alliances (TIA) met with U.S. Representative Lois Capps on Monday, March 12 to discuss the importance of their work to protect, market, and out-license UCSB-owned technologies as well as encourage companies to invest in developing commercial products based on UCSB research for the public benefit. Capps also toured UCSB startup company Next Energy Technologies.
“UCSB’s Office of Technology and Industry Alliances is not only helping to further develop key technologies and breakthroughs in clean energy, computer science, and health care, it’s creating jobs and growing our regional economy,” Capps said in a prepared statement before the meeting. “It’s clearly one of the most effective job creation tools in our area, and I look forward to learning more about their great work.”
At the meeting, Sherylle Mills Englander, director of Technology & Industry Alliances at UCSB, told the congressmember about the work TIA does in fostering the creation of new businesses, specifically those formed around cutting-edge science pioneered at UCSB. “A student will come to us with an idea and will say, ‘We can start a company.’ Then we find business talent and bring them in to get the ball rolling,” Englander told Capps. “Our research can directly make lives better,” she said, “instead of just publishing research papers for other scientists to build on.” She went on to talk about UCSB being a leader in the fields of LED lighting, robotics, computing, and oil cleanup technologies. Four to six new companies per year come out of UCSB, and Englander said that we see the benefits locally.
Capps brought up the risk involved with backing technology startups, citing the recent Solyndra fiasco, in which the government-backed company received much coverage in the press only to abruptly go bankrupt. “People should understand that the government needs to get involved in these companies because a lot of them fail,” Capps said. “Private investors won’t take a risk on them. If no one backs them, then you’ll never move forward. When this story is told, the public will say we have to give them what they need because it’s so vital.”
“One thing you can help us with is the BiDole Act, which a lot of companies are trying to undo,” Englander told Capps. The BiDole Act allows universities to solicit private funds for inventions that were developed using federal money and get patents on those inventions. “We don’t have any incentive to take advantage of the private sector,” Englander said. She told Capps how maintaining good relationships with businesses is beneficial to the university.
Dr. Corey Hoven, founder and chief technology officer of Next Energy Technologies, and Daniel Emmett, CEO, gave a presentation on their company to Capps before showing her around the labs. Hoven, a PhD graduate from the Materials Department at UCSB, explained to the congressmember how Next Energy’s founders discovered organic semiconductors that they say have the potential to fundamentally alter the economics and functionality of solar power.
The active layer of the solar cells is only 100 nanometers — 1/100,000th of a centimeter — thick, and it is painted onto conventional rolls of plastic film. This is a totally different form of solar energy compared to the flat, heavy panels used today. Daniel Emmett, Next Energy’s CEO, said that the energy output of his company’s solar cells is a little lower than conventional ones but that it more than makes up for it in cost. “They are orders of magnitude cheaper,” he said, showing Capps a chart comparing first and second generation solar panels that cost about $1 billion per gigawatt peak, compared to Next Energy’s solar cells, which cost between $5 and $20 million for the same energy output. “We’re about a couple years away from being on the market,” Emmett told Capps.
When asked if they planned to move elsewhere, outsource to China, for example, Emmett shook his head. “We’re definitely super-committed to doing it here in Santa Barbara. There’s no advantage to make these anywhere but here, since the cost is so cheap.”