SM: When you went to the university, you essentially went to carry on type of work you had been doing at ECD?
XD: I learned business and operations savvy at ECD. As soon as I arrived at the university I quickly built my team and developed the ability to make high efficiency solar cells. We then pursued government grants from National Renewable Energy Labs, the Department of Energy and all kinds of sources.
SM: How easy was it to get grant funding for solar energy during that time?
XD: This was in 1996 so the timing was good. When I was at ECD I was the principal investigator for its research programs for National Renewable Energy Labs. When I joined the university, the labs were already familiar with my credentials. That put me in a good position to get my funding as a professor at the university. I then applied for funding from the DOE and National Science Foundation in partnerships with other professors. Even on the academic side, you must have money before you can build the team.
SM: Tell me a bit about what was going on in the photovoltaic market. What was the lay of the land, and what deficiencies did you notice in your research that you were able to earn your grants?
XD: I went back to my time at ECD. While I was there we developed some innovative products and had great product lines. The problem that I always encountered was the high cost of the machinery required to produce them. I figured if I were able to cut the cost of the machines by a factor of 2 or 3, then the price of the products would drop substantially and open up a whole new market area.
SM: Your thesis was that it would be very beneficial to innovate in manufacturing equipment?
XD: Exactly. It seemed to me that the current equipment was way too expensive. Right now people are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into production equipment because there is a strong market for it. In the 1990s that was not the case.
SM: What happened next?
XD: When I arrived at the university I realized that in order to cut the equipment cost by a factor of 2 or 3, several things had to happen. I felt that if we did focus on those things first, eventually it would lead to new production processes and equipment. I considered that to be the best way to penetrate the amorphous silicon photovoltaic industry.
SM: You secured funding from the NSF and various other sources. How long did it take you to build up enough technology to be able to validate your thesis?
XD: I did struggle some to balance the typical theoretical research done at universities compared to the more applied, production-oriented research I wanted to do. In the end it has all worked out. My students graduate with PhDs, have actual skills that make them very easy to be hired, and we have actual devices that the university can showcase versus only published papers.
In the end, having all the applied research with actual devices made us more competitive in the grants process. Other universities were putting up examples of published theory and my team was putting up examples of published papers along with actual devices.