Two weeks ago I received a press release from Konarka’s PR company announcing that the company’s power plastic products had been integrated into another company’s wall panel systems. As with many of the previous announcements it was greeted by the incredulity that they the company was still going, running around making deals, as they have been tipped for disaster for most of the past decade.
Unlike many Nanotech failures where sound technology has been misexpoloited by poor management, Konarka’s management spent the past decade trying to make a silk purse out of a sows ear, and more importantly keeping investors convinced that they could pull it off. Howard Berke may now be the CEO of a bankrupt company, but he is also a great example of how grit and determination distinguishes entrepreneurs from the rest of us.
I spend a huge amount of time discussing entrepreneurship with various academic institutions and government agencies, all looking for a magic bullet which will turn scientists into entrepreneurs. After ten thousand years of trying to make a buck, shekel, cow or ear of corn there is still no formula for entrepreneurship, whether commercialising the plough or organic photovoltaics. All you can say is that entrepreneurs, for better of worse, just don’t give up, so before the sniping at Konarka starts, just remember that that tried, tried very hard, and raised the best part of a hundred million dollars along the way.
Of course the sniping is opportune, “Mitt Romney’s Solyndra” is one of the phrases being bandied around by people trying to score a cheap political point, but the state of Massachusetts only provided a fraction of the money raised, most of which was clawed back in income taxes and knock on effects in the local economy. Konarka was so much more than a political failure.
When I first met Bill Beckenbaugh and Howard Berke back in 2002 they were a couple of guys with a vision of using the then emerging Nanotech enabled organic electronics to harness solar energy. Like many of their contemporaries looking at Nanotech to replace then current data storage technologies they could not predict a)that it would take ten years to get close to market and b) that cost cutting by Chinese solar suppliers would remove their cost advantage over silicon based technologies.
I’ve followed Konarka closely through the past decade. Through their original idea, commercialising Nobel laureates Alan Heegers ideas through to licensing Michel Graetzels dye cell technology. A great idea in principle, but it was one where the the market got way from them, and while the technology worked, producing commercial devices that could deliver on cost, efficiency and lifetime proved elusive. It’s standing joke that most organic thin film solar technologies work fine under vacuum and in the dark (moisture and UV radiation kill the devices quickly) and Konarka were not the only ones taking this approach.
Last time I suggested that a company was badly run with failing technology and was heading for failure I got sued (unsuccessfully) for defamation by a company that ceased to exist soon afterwards, so I’ll refrain from naming some of the other companies who will be soon following Konarka into bankruptcy. Suffice it to say that this won’t be that last organic electronics company we see fail, although I’m equally convinced that some will survive and do exceedingly well.
So how did Konarka last so long despite being six months away from shipping product since 2003?
Successful entrepreneurs don’t just put in the hours, they tell the story that investors want to believe in. In the early part of the last decade investors wanted a piece of nanotechnology in the latter half they wanted to invest in renewables. Konarka gave investors what they wanted and told the story well.
So before we write this one off as another Nanotech failure, remember this. Someone has to see the potential in new technologies and work their butts off to realise that potential. Sometimes its hard to remember that when sniping from the sidelines, but was we saw with the whole molecular nanotechnology and NanoBot scene last decade, talking is much easier than doing.
What Konarka had was a brilliant and potentially world changing idea. The technology didn’t fail, it was just that their version of it didn’t work out. At least they tried.