Guerrilla Development: Brian Argo Shares Innovation Lessons from His Work with Solar Cells


Today I’m pleased to share a guest column from a friend, Brian Argo of Brian Argo & Associates LLC. Brian specializes in technical scouting, intellectual property searches, and formulation of cleaners and personal care products. He has a wide variety of experience in innovation and offers an interesting perspective that I thought would be useful for readers of Conquering Innovation Fatigue and this blog. –Jeff Lindsay

Brian Argo

Brian Argo

Since I was a kid, I have always rooted for the mad scientist in monster movies. It’s not the diabolical nature of their work that I found so appealing, but the willingness to take on the world for a cause that you’re committed too. Although I have spent 23 years happily developing various consumer products for companies like Kimberly-Clark and Clorox, I’m also interested solar power. My solar project started in 2003 at Christmas time during a lunch with my former graduate research group. They had a very cool way to grow nanoscale metal hairs out of an insulated template. They thought this would be the Holy Grail for solar power, but couldn’t see a good way to produce this at a large scale. After a few dozen napkins, it became clear that there were viable technical options to do so.

Our idea was simply to form a microscopic mold as a template, fill it with metal, and remove part of the template leaving individual metal hairs surrounded by an insulator. Then, we could use any number of methods to coat the hairs and form solar cells. At the end of the day, its not too far technically removed from fabricating a micro scale Popsicle using a semiconductor foundry.

When our technical work started in earnest, we thought we might have been a bit deluded to think we scooped the big boys of the world (GE, BP, Sharpe). Off to my basement I went. I worked through the physics. I looked through hundreds of journal articles. I read through over 3000 patent abstracts. All the while, simply using Google, the US PTO, and the WIPO search engines. While I prefer using search engines like Aureka, it really isn’t to bad doing a search manually either. As long as you are short on money and don’t mind working like a mad man, it’s not a problem. I was worried that I must have missed something so I double-checked my search against an IP search using artificial intelligence. No significant prior art came up.

It become evident that geometry of the nano scale hairs was perfect to create a super solar cell. The solar cells are probably coated with what are referred to as nano dots or at least coatings so thin that phenomena that cause electrical losses due to excessive thickness disappeared. The cells are also super light absorbent and conserve rare materials. This was not lost on the theoreticians. However, their further belief was that semiconductor equipment is cost prohibitive for the use in solar cells, which is correct for machines found in state-of-the-art foundries. What they missed was that older, more primitive equipment was sufficient to make the nano-wire solar cell cost effectively. General George Patton once said, “If we’re all thinking the same thing, someone isn’t thinking.” In retrospect, groupthink in the solar industry left us a brief crack of time, which we used to patent and develop the technology. In the years that followed, we learned a lot of work had started a short time after ours.

The intellectual property needed to be done flawlessly. In my mind, that meant that I should draft the applications myself. However, the group voted to go with a big name national legal firm. Since we were bootstrapping the enterprise, we were starting with a provisional patent application. To save on legal fees, I drafted the application. Next, I spent the two weeks bringing an entry-level patent attorney up to speed on our technology, and then she let us know that the application was excellent and she supported filing it. No added claims. No significant improvements to the specification. Only a big “atta boy” and an invoice for $15,000. I think that when you work with a large legal firm and you are a fledgling startup, it is very unlikely that you will get the “A” level support. In the end, I suppose I did what I set out to do; we were just poorer for the experience. My only other qualm with our process is that our team viewed IP development as an ancillary activity. Some people just don’t get the value of IP until it is too late. Eventually excellent counsel was located through a recommendation of a former colleague, and the final application was done well.

Now all we needed was money. We chose two avenues, grants for academic research and angel money. Neither path is easy, but we managed to get several grants. The grants were nice to keep members of the team solvent, but they can also be a trap where too much focus is on writing papers. We found this to be the case, and eventually refocused fund raising on angel investors. That is not easy either. To get angel money, you need to have a good idea, and you need to have someone they know on your team. People who are trusted by angel investors or venture capitalists are not necessarily people that can be trusted. I cannot over emphasize how difficult it is to find a good person that meets that criterion. Mark Twain once said “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” You cannot do too much background work. Fund raising last year was not fun. A Nobel Prize winner, a Stanford electrical engineer who graduated top his class in two and a half years, and few dozen other technical leaders, vetted us out. It was our experience that the complexity of the idea got lukewarm responses or ridicule from VC’s with little technical depth, but fantastic responses from investors with high levels of technical skill.

As grants and angel money trickled in, I frantically yet frugally raced to develop a prototype always working to stay one step ahead of the money. One problem was that there was no other technical support. Another problem was that manually performing operations that are normally automated around the clock is challenging. After many months of grueling work, it was gratifying to find that everything worked as I thought it would. Finally, individual investors gave us the money we needed to enter into long-term process development. The project has been moving forward according to plan. However, my personal and business priorities were not a match with the new management of the company, and the company no longer employs me. I am back in the consumer products business enjoying a brisk consulting business. This type of venture is not for anyone with a weak stomach for long hours, high risk, or high stress. However, if you are willing to pay the price and can work with trustworthy people, it can be the most satisfying and financially rewarding adventure in your career.

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