A Chat with Konarka Co-Founder Howard Berke

Howard Berke, the co-founder and executive chairman of the board for solar polymer company Konarka, stepped down from his role as CEO in June, but we still found him out manning the company booth at the Solar Power 2007 convention this week. We chatted with him about the Lowell, Mass.-based company’s plans for commercialization — Berke says the first products won’t likely hit the market until the second half of 2008.
A lot companies developing thin film and other new solar technologies are struggling to move into the production phase, and companies like Miasolé and Nanosolar continue to raise funding to take that next step. Konarka was founded in 2001, and built with $60 million from venture capital firms 3i, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Good Energies, NEA, Partech and Vanguard Ventures. Konarka is also reportedly seeking to raise another $40 million in a late stage of venture funding and while the company won’t comment on that report, they won’t officially deny it either.

Konarka’s technology is different from some of the other thin film startups and it is based on organic semi-conducting polymers. Berke says the technology can be manufactured at a lower cost — their target cost is $1 per watt — it is more environmentally friendly, and can be printed on a variety of lighter-weight materials. Thin film technologies like cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS) can have potential safety hazards and some higher costs. At the same time, Konarka’s efficiency rate runs between three and five percent, which is less than many standard solar efficiencies.
All these qualities make the technology suitable for applications such as packaging with a little solar power added in. Berke uses soft drinks as an example: Say there’s two soft-drink brands in a store, one with packaging that has lights blinking and the other without — which one are you more drawn to? Another example would be a cereal box solar-powered electronic game — since the materials aren’t hazardous, he says, they can more easily be disposed of.
OK, a little wasteful, but we get it. The company is also looking at applications in clothing, handbags, toys, cell phones, laptops, windows, traffic signals, and smart lighting, among others.