3 Questions: What’s it like winning the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition?

The founders of MIT spinout Active Surfaces describe their thin-film solar technology and their experience winning this year’s $100K. Credits:Image: Courtesy of MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition

Solar power plays a major role in nearly every roadmap for global decarbonization. But solar panels are large, heavy, and expensive, which limits their deployment. But what if solar panels looked more like a yoga mat?

Such a technology could be transported in a roll, carried to the top of a building, and rolled out across the roof in a matter of minutes, slashing installation costs and dramatically expanding the places where rooftop solar makes sense.

That was the vision laid out by the MIT spinout Active Surfaces as part of the winning pitch at this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, which took place May 15. The company is leveraging materials science and manufacturing innovations from labs across MIT to make ultra-thin, lightweight, and durable solar a reality.

The $100K is one of MIT’s most visible entrepreneurship competitions, and past winners say the prize money is only part of the benefit that winning brings to a burgeoning new company. MIT News sat down with Active Surface founders Shiv Bhakta, a graduate student in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations dual-degree program within the MIT Sloan School of Management and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Richard Swartwout SM ’18 PhD ’21, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate and former Research Laboratory of Electronics postdoc and MIT.nano innovation fellow, to learn what the last couple of months have been like since they won.

Q: What is Active Surfaces’ solution, and what is its potential?

Bhakta: We’re commercializing an ultrathin film, flexible solar technology. Solar is one of the most broadly distributed resources in the world, but access is limited today. It’s heavy — it weighs 50 to 60 pounds a panel — it requires large teams to move around, and the form factor can only be deployed in specific environments.

Our approach is to develop a solar technology for the built environment. In a nutshell, we can create flexible solar panels that are as thin as paper, just as efficient as traditional panels, and at unprecedented cost floors, all while being applied to any surface. Same area, same power. That’s our motto.

When I came to MIT, my north star was to dive deeper in my climate journey and help make the world a better, greener place. Now, as we build Active Surfaces, I’m excited to see that dream taking shape. The prospect of transforming any surface into an energy source, thereby expanding solar accessibility globally, holds the promise of significantly reducing CO2 emissions at a gigaton scale. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Swartwout: Solar and a lot of other renewables tend to be pretty land-inefficient. Solar 1.0 is using low hanging fruit: cheap land next to easy interconnects and new buildings designed to handle the weight of current panels. But as we ramp up solar, those things will run out. We need to utilize spaces and assets better. That’s what I think solar 2.0 will be: urban PV deployments, solar that’s closer to demand, and integrated into the built environment. These next-generation use cases aren’t just a racking system in the middle of nowhere.

We’re going after commercial roofs, which would cover most [building] energy demand. Something like 80-90 percent of building electricity demands in the space can be met by rooftop solar.

The goal is to do the manufacturing in-house. We use roll-to-roll manufacturing, so we can buy tons of equipment off the shelf, but most roll-to-roll manufacturing is made for things like labeling and tape, and not a semiconductor, so our plan is to be the core of semiconductor roll-to-roll manufacturing. There’s never been roll-to-roll semiconductor manufacturing before.

Q: What have the last few months been like since you won the $100K competition?

Bhakta: After winning the $100K, we’ve gotten a lot of inbound contact from MIT alumni. I think that’s my favorite part about the MIT community — people stay connected. They’ve been congratulating us, asking to chat, looking to partner, deploy, and invest.

We’ve also gotten contacted by previous $100K competition winners and other startups that have spun out of MIT that are a year or two or three ahead of us in terms of development. There are a lot of startup scaling challenges that other startup founders are best equipped to answer, and it’s been huge to get guidance from them.

We’ve also gotten into top accelerators like Cleantech Open, Venture For Climatetech, and ACCEL at Greentown Labs. We also onboarded two rockstar MIT Sloan interns for the summer. Now we’re getting to the product-development phase, building relationships with potential pilot partners, and scaling up the area of our technology.      

Swartwout: Winning the $100K competition was a great point of validation for the company, because the judges themselves are well known in the venture capital community as well as people who have been in the startup ecosystem for a long time, so that has really propelled us forward. Ideally, we’ll be getting more MIT alumni to join us to fulfill this mission.

Q: What are your plans for the next year or so?

Swartwout: We’re planning on leveraging open-access facilities like those at MIT.nano and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. We’re pretty focused now on scaling size. Out of the lab, [the technology] is a 4-inch by 4-inch solar module, and the goal is to get up to something that’s relevant for the industry to offset electricity for building owners and generate electricity for the grid at a reasonable cost.

Bhakta: In the next year, through those open-access facilities, the goal is to go from 100-millimeter width to 300-millimeter width and a very long length using a roll-to-roll manufacturing process. That means getting through the engineering challenges of scaling technology and fine tuning the performance.

When we’re ready to deliver a pilotable product, it’s my job to have customers lined up ready to demonstrate this works on their buildings, sign longer term contracts to get early revenue, and have the support we need to demonstrate this at scale. That’s the goal.

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