SM: A $2.9 million grant sounds like real money. What was the project?
XD: It was to build a hydrogen generation system using solar. At that time fuel cells were very hot. Of course, a fuel cell needs fuel, which happens to be hydrogen. We found that the solar cell, based on amorphous silicon, was a perfect candidate to generate hydrogen using an electrolysis process. You have a solar cell that you immerse in water. Under sunlight the solar cell will generate a voltage, and that voltage will split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be collected and used to power cars.
SM: Very interesting. How far did that project get you?
XD: That, along with a couple of smaller $300,000 awards, got us through 2005. The $2.9 million grant was over a period of years, so we received funding incrementally. By the end of 2005 we had some internal resources that we used to design the production line. In 2006 I started going after venture capital money based on that production line.
I went to Silicon Valley and presented our business plan at the CleanTech Venture Forum. I had never presented my work to the venture capital community before, so I was not experienced. I came in with a perceived background of being a university professor and scientist who had been living off government grants. Everybody was speaking a whole new language that I did not understand. People did notice that I had a lot of passion.
SM: And a lot of technical expertise. Not a lot of people have that specific type of expertise.
XD: I did have the expertise as well as an entire university lab behind it. I had 20 people in my lab by then. I had a lot of multi-million dollar grants by then.
SM: It sounds as though you are a great grant writer.
XD: There were grants, not only from the DOE but also from the state of Ohio. They invested $2 million into my university lab. That was to build a large area deposition system for photovoltaics. The university and our company had a license agreement. Everything we developed was owned by the university because I am on the faculty there, but the university provided exclusive license to the company. The university would get a licensing fee, royalty, and a piece of the company. They were happy because of all the grants coming in. When you have a spinoff company, everyone wins.
SM: It is great for the university because it sends the signal to the government that it is an institution that can take technology into industry.
XD: Exactly. The university used the $2 million grant from the state of Ohio to invest in the lab equipment, which supported the company. The proposal for the equipment was submitted in collaboration with our company. That is the type of situation that worked out perfectly for the state because it can invest in emerging technology as well as education at the same time. It is just like the scenario you described.