SM: Awareness of alternative and renewable energy before 2003 was much lower than it is today. It started picking up on a global scale in 2003-2004. Getting grants instead of venture funding seems like a good route to have gone in that particular timeframe.
XD: It was good, although it was pretty tough to get those awards. We had to demonstrate continued, solid progress in the lab. I built a team based on my first grant from the National Renewable Energy Lab. Our team then demonstrated high efficiency solar cells as well as our ability to make solar cells at a higher rate than existing processes. Those were very important things. In 2002 my wife and I decided it was a good time to start the company.
SM: What is your wife’s background?
XD: My wife has a PhD in chemistry from the University of Chicago. We are both from the same city and both ranked #1 in our college entrance exams for the province in different years. We went to the same college in China and the same graduate school in the US. It seems that the only difference between us is I studied physics and she studied chemistry.
She did a postdoc at the University of Michigan and then later joined me at ECD, where she worked on nickel hydride batteries. After I moved to Toledo she started teaching physics part time at the University of Toledo as well. In 2002 when we started the company, she actually took the lead in submitting grant proposals. We started the company in a different way from people who have a lot of money or who come from wealthy families. We had no money.
SM: Did you have any initial funding in 2002?
XD: We put in $10,000 ourselves. That allowed us to buy chairs, desks, and computers. We then started submitting proposals to the federal government under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. At the end of 2002 we submitted one to the Department of Energy for $100,000, and we got the award.
SM: At that time were you still planning to build an equipment company?
XD: The funding we received was through a SBIR so we had little choice in the direction of our work. We set up a small research and development team to work on neutron detectors using amorphous silicon detectors. It was related to what I had done in the past and with our hopes for the future, but it was not directly in line with our ultimate goals.
SM: What are amorphous silicon detectors? What was the application they were going to be used for?
XD: The application was a detector to measure neutrons for medical applications. It was a bit far away from the core of our technology.
SM: It was an SBIR program, so who were the potential customers for a neutron detector?
XD: Oak Ridge National Labs would have been the customer.
SM: So you did some government contracting to build up the early stages of your company?
SM: How long did that last?
XD: It was a nine-month project. However, at the same time in 2003, we were awarded a National Science Foundation project called the Partnership for Innovation. The award was to the University of Toledo, which supported us as a spinoff company with a $25,000 grant. That grant was to develop a new process for photovoltaic and hydrogen generation.
SM: In the grand scheme, $25,000 is not a lot of money. How did you manage to build a process with such a small amount of capital?
XD: It served as bridge funding. It was enough to keep the company going until 2004 when we picked up three projects. The biggest one of those was a $2.9 million project from the DOE.