Dr. Christopher Barnes is the founder and CEO of Taka Solar, a company specializing in solar power systems for commercial buildings. He has previously worked on renewable energy at Solyndra and other startups, and on consumer electronics at Amazon Lab126. Chris has a Ph.D. in accelerator physics from Stanford University and a B.S. in physics from Yale. We recently talked about his journey from graduate work at a national laboratory to practicing industrial physicist and finally striking out on his own as an entrepreneur:
Matt: Hi, Chris. Thanks for taking the time to speak to me tonight.
Chris: It’s my pleasure.
Matt: A little over a year ago you founded Taka Solar, which is your first company.
Matt: What made you decide to take the entrepreneurial path?
Chris: I never had a specific ambition to be an entrepreneur as such, but it seemed like the only option available. Basically, I had worked at the somewhat now infamous company Solyndra, and a couple of years later I realized that they were on to something. Well, I had always known that they were on to something, but they had mixed a good idea with a not so good idea. I realized I could disentangle the two ideas in a particular way and I just had to do it.
I guess the idea kind of grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. So, entrepreneurship seemed like the most appropriate approach because it’s not really a research project, such as you’d do at a university. It’s really just a matter of relatively simple business execution. I don’t specifically want to be a businessman, but it’s my best option.
Matt: Okay. So, you couldn’t find a job that let you do what you wanted to do so you went out and made your own?
Chris: I think there’s an element of that. There are plenty of good jobs out there, but these days my particular interest is renewable energy, and my skill set best aligned with solar. There aren’t a lot of jobs in solar as such. In that regard, starting my own company was the best way to be a solar person, though it’s not necessarily the best way to make money.
Matt: I think that might surprise a lot of people. What do you mean that there are not a lot of jobs in solar?
Chris: The industry was pretty vibrant in terms of startups, circa 2005, 2006. There are certainly companies that still exist, but there was kind of a rash of bankruptcies starting around 2010. It’s claimed, in terms of total number of jobs in startups in solar, that something like 80 or 90% of those jobs are now gone compared to the peak. I don’t know exactly when the peak was, but maybe 2010.
There are still jobs in solar startups, but they’re kind of specialized, kind of niche. I’m hoping to make a few more of those jobs, but there just aren’t a whole lot floating around.
Matt: Okay, so while Solar City or some other major installer, whose business model is importing panels and putting them up, maybe doing alright, it sounds like new product development, new technology is not doing so well. Is that what I understand?
Chris: Yeah, well you’ve got your finger on the pulse because of your own work, which is certainly aligned of what solar’s trying to do. In terms of cool new hardware or interesting ideas, they’re still out there but it’s a lot harder to get funding and a lot of the investors are pretty skittish. I had a meeting just today in fact with a guy who’s like, “Oh it’s not impossible, but boy it sure isn’t the same as 2005.” So, the investment planet follows the higher level business fallout.
Matt: So, do you want to give me your elevator pitch for Taka Solar?
Chris: I haven’t practiced the actual 30 second one in a while, but it’s along the lines of: “Hi, I’m Chris and I founded Taka Solar so that solar installers can finally convince commercial building owners to put big systems up on their roofs. The reason those commercial building owners haven’t done so yet is that the costs are a little too high, the installation is slow and disruptive and in some cases the systems are too heavy. We have a panel that solves all of those problems.”
The idea is that solar installers can now make a better case to the commercial building owners. To go a little bit deeper into the details of it, one of the feedbacks that I’ve gotten about this whole question is that, so far, you just can’t make solar panel systems up on commercial roofs quite cheap enough to be the best possible investment for a commercial building owner. Say they’ve got a million dollars lying around. They’re going to get a six or seven or eight percent return by going solar, but they might get a 15% return by putting in another production line inside that building, or buying a company overseas, or whatever it is.
So, it’s not the top choice and you have multiple stakeholders between the CEO, the actual building manager, and then maybe the operations officer involved. If you had a solution where the IRR [Internal Rate of Return] was 20%, then everything falls into place because everyone’s interests are aligned. But when it’s like, oh we wanna go green but we’re gonna lose money to do it, it becomes a much harder sell.
Matt: I see. You’re looking to innovate in the package of the solar panels and get into that market at a better return.
Chris: That’s the idea. I mean at the end of the day, probably the number one concern of the end customer is just how much it costs for that system. It’s free after you buy it. So, the energy costs that you produce over the following 25 years, they’re directly affected, and I think pretty much linearly, by the upfront cost. If I could make the upfront cost 10 or 20% lower, it becomes kind of a slam dunk for many people.
Just because it’s fun to geek out and I know you’re a fellow scientist, the reason that the Taka panel, which is derived very closely from the old Solyndra panel, is advantageous is that it’s got a lot of open space inside the panel. It’s a series of roughly inch diameter, meter long tubes racked together with a space between them and the wind goes right through it. The mounting is a simple snap on foot rather than a big steel frame with concrete ballast or lots of bolts into the structure under the roof to hold things down in the wind, because wind is the major problem. You have to design for whatever the craziest wind is that could happen in 100 years. I believe in some cases there have been roofs that actually ripped off upwards in a wind storm because they had bolted down solar panels.
Chris: Yeah. So the Taka idea is you make a solar panel which itself will hopefully cost a little bit less, for technical reasons that probably aren’t relevant now, but the panel’s similar in cost to the hardware associated with a traditional system. However, the installation, labor, and some of the hardware and complexity around all of that gets dramatically simplified because your panels allow for that simplification.
Matt: Interesting. Since you’re kind of deriving from the older Solyndra work, what is the IP [Intellectual Property] situation around that?
Chris: Well, I think it’s very good. First off, Solyndra proved that people care about rapid installation. They could do systems two, three, four, five times faster than everybody else, and installers really liked that because their crew could bang out more jobs per month or per year. There was a lot of demand for Solyndra, it was just the panels were so outrageously expensive that it compensated for and then negated all of the other big advantages. If your panels cost three times as much as everybody else’s, then it doesn’t matter how good a job you do on attacking other pieces of the problem, you still have a problem. So, I think I figured out how to solve that.
As far as the IP question goes, I’ve purchased the relevant four patents from the Solyndra trust. They had 28 but only four were related to the panel shape. Most of them had to do with their semiconductor deposition processes, and that unfortunately was the expensive part that killed Solyndra. Their IP about making tubes was kind of a side effect of trying to protect this fragile semi-conductor, it can’t have exposure to oxygen or water. It basically needs a hermetic seal. The tubes were to some extent a side effect of that need, but that’s where all the value was and I bought the relevant four patents. I also have one of my own that’s going through the courts right now, or examination I should say. I was talking with my lawyer just a couple hours ago about amending it and it’s gonna be broken up into a couple of patents, but I think of it as one right now. It covers the mechanism for making my version of these tubes that I mentioned. That’s the big difference. The tubes are manufactured in a drastically simpler way using commodity materials, like solar cells you can buy from China, instead of in fancy fabs which we have to pay for. Making your own vacuum ovens that are 50 meters long and taking two hours to slowly evaporate selenium gas onto the tube was really cool and it worked really well, but there was nothing cheap about it with Solyndra.
Matt: This is often where physicists get into trouble going into industry, it may be really cool, but if the economics don’t work, too bad so sad, right?
Chris: That’s exactly the issue. The high-level point is exactly that. As a physicist and somebody who loves complex ideas and interesting things, I can talk about Liouville’s theorem and how that relates to what I’m doing, but at the end of the day, my innovation is very simple. I’m using slightly differently shaped glass on an otherwise standard glass-to-glass solar panel. It’s really building on a ton of work done by Solyndra, so I’m just a kind of final increment. At that level, if this is the best idea I ever have, I’m gonna be really depressed. On the other hand, in terms of the potential repercussions for society, I think the potential for impact is very large. But I aspire for more exciting intellectual discoveries in my future.
Matt: Sure, but often that’s how big change happens, right? It’s the little change at the end that makes it viable.
Chris: I think in many cases. Well, there can be maybe several steps at which innovation has its most exciting impact. It can be the very initial concept of something just completely new, or it can be the reworking of something. I’m not an expert on this, but my understanding is that what we think of as the first steam engine was like the 10th generation, but it was the first one that kind of worked, and it was the result of just a couple tweaks to an underlying clever idea. I mean the Egyptians had something sort of like it millennia before, and then it just lay fallow. So maybe this is a little bit analogous, but I must give a lot of credit to the Solyndra people. They did most of the hard work in figuring this out and verifying that there was actually demand and interest in all of this. I just want to solve the one last thing that they were struggling with.
Matt: Right. I saw that you’ve had some help in your journey into entrepreneurship. Can you tell me a little bit about Founder Institute?
Chris: Yeah, I discovered them kind of randomly online, just poking around for various events that they have for entrepreneurs here in the Bay Area. There’s all kinds of meet ups and stuff that feature people practicing pitching or giving advice to would-be entrepreneurs. It’s sort of an unbelievably frenetic and vibrant ecosystem of people trying to start companies. Founder Institute stood out for me because they focused on individuals who have a pretty good idea and just want to be an entrepreneur and it was a good match.
The more famous accelerators you may have heard of like Y Combinator, or 500 Startups are great, but they’re kind of focused on people who already have a team and maybe they already have some funding. They just need to kick it up a notch, I mean accelerate what they’re already doing. I wasn’t really already doing anything, so, for me personally, Founder Institute was a great match. They focus on defining your idea and making sure that it’s not ridiculous. There were a number of people who wanted to do different versions of order online food delivery services, but that space is somewhat picked over so they didn’t last. Refining ideas, getting incorporated, just doing some of the grunt work that has to happen for a company, and then giving us some tools to go out there. As a result of having graduated from their program last year, I was eligible for a follow on program that I’m doing right now, which centers really on finding investors and all the things you need to do. Once you’ve done it, it’s not hard, it’s just grunt work and it can be hard to know where to start if you don’t have somebody giving you some guidance. It’s been a great match for me personally. If I was like a friend of mine from graduate school, and I came out with my idea from grad school with my advisor on board and there were six of us starting the company all together, it would be a very different landscape and I would not have pursued the Founder Institute.
Matt: Interesting. Let’s dial it back and talk about a little bit about how you got here. So, how did you first decide to study physics, way back when you were in undergrad or before?
Chris: Yeah, the decision I think was finalized at around age 19, somewhat into college. I was kind of always interested in physics for the maybe worst and most obvious reason that my father is also a physicist. He does very different stuff than I ended up doing, but it always seemed interesting. I liked knowing how the world works, and again I think it’s partly his influence. It just seemed like an interesting thing to pursue. Compared to math, or in those days computer science, it seemed the most general way to understand the universe. I’ve come to realize more recently that economics is also really interesting, it has interesting tie-ins to science if you think about it at a certain level. But for me it was just the general fascination with the natural world and physics was the best entrée into that. I knew that it also provided the most flexibility in terms of actual specific careers, having graduated in physics. Even at the age of 19 that seemed obvious to me.
Matt: Okay. Then, having finished a bachelor’s at Yale, you decided to go on to graduate school. What influenced that decision?
Chris: I guess it’s sort of the same thing. I mean, there was an element of not knowing what to do with my life. So, what the heck, I go to school, was certainly part of it. I felt like I wasn’t done in digging down into how the universe works. Again, I didn’t go into physics graduate school with the strong anticipation of just being a professor necessarily. It seemed like, or it continued to seem like, the best preparation for a wide variety of things that I might do. It’s a little bit analogous to the people who run hedge funds in New York or whatever saying that they like history majors, or English majors, because they have a sort of general skill set that translates to a lot of fields. I thought that physics was the best match to my interest in having access to a wide variety of fields all in the technical space.
Matt: Okay, but during your time in graduate school you didn’t really have a good idea of where that might lead you career-wise?
Chris: Yeah, that’s definitely a fair assessment. I had realized halfway through undergraduate, this is the early 1990s, that if I really wanted to be a physicist, just from a job security and vitality of the field standpoint, that going into astrophysics and astronomy, and cosmology was absolutely the place to go. I think I’ve been fairly strongly borne out with that approach that I thought of 25 years ago. I just personally wasn’t that interested in it because I find the idea of infinite expansion kind of depressing actually. It’s a silly emotional reaction to some of the results of cosmology the last quarter century that makes me not want to touch it.
Matt: [Laughs] Fair enough.
Chris: Much more hopeful was things like clean energy and cool technology to help society. That seemed very satisfying and, well, I guess obviated some of my concerns about cosmology. It sounds ridiculous now that I say it, but I think that was sort of my half-conscious thinking. I just went on to graduate school figuring that it would lead to things and, toward the end of graduate school, Devon Johnson [a mutual friend of both Chris and Matt] and I were talking a lot about how we thought green energy was really cool. We’ve both done varying amounts of things in that field, and it’s been very satisfying.
Matt: After graduate school in advanced accelerator physics you choose to go pretty much straight into industry and green energy, right?
Chris: Yeah, I had to finagle a little bit, the Stanford connections were useful. I got my first job partly because Dick Swanson, who is relatively famous as the founder of Sun Power, was giving a seminar over at Stanford where he was an alumni and professor, and I just collared him and he helped give me some advice to find my first job. I was able to essentially use his name in vain to finagle my first job. He was very nice about it, he’s a great guy.
Matt: That’s called networking, right?
Chris: Yeah, I think it’s a fair thing. It always feels a little bit like cheating somehow, to use a graduate school alumni network. I consider myself fortunate, and I don’t take all the credit for it, to go to some well-regarded schools, and that’s opened up some doors. Just philosophically it makes me worry about what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had my particular parents and gone to my high school, which for various reasons was really really excellent. As a public school in Indiana you wouldn’t necessarily expect that, but it was. That’s of no credit to me, but I’ve had a great education and I always feel slightly guilty about taking advantage of it. But yes, I did network.
Matt: I see. So, you had a couple of shorter gigs before ending up at Solyndra for a good stay, right?
Chris: Yeah, the first gig was involuntarily short because they were a small company and already had an optics expert who actually had experience. The second one I would’ve had to move to Israel, which in and of itself was interesting, but the Solyndra opportunity sounded really good so I had to jump ship.
Matt: Right, and obviously your time at Solyndra led to some good things later on but …
Chris: Well we’ll know how good they are, but to me very interesting, yeah. We’ll find out.
Matt: I guess you were actually at Solyndra up until the end, is that right?
Chris: The bitter, being dragged with my fingernails scraping down the walls out the door kind of bitter end, yes. Just as an amusing aside, it was a relatively long bicycle commute over there, about 15 to 20 miles from where I was living. Because it was far enough that even the round trip was sometimes annoying, I got in the habit of occasionally driving over in the morning and then biking home that evening, then biking back the following day and driving home in the evening. That way I only had to do one direction each day. So, I showed up in my spandex at 9:00 or whatever that morning and at first they wouldn’t let me in the building and I was really confused. Thankfully, my car was there so I was able to clear out my desk without having to pile it on my bicycle.
Matt: I guess one thing that I realize, since I work at a startup, and you realize that a lot of people don’t is that you don’t really know when the end of a company is coming, right? They don’t give advanced warning.
Chris: I had inklings, and I fault myself for not getting my final two months of pay because I didn’t submit my latest time cards. I was actually thinking that I should do that as I rode over that morning. But you don’t really know it’s coming, I was just starting to get worried. I hope nothing like that’s in your immediate future. [Laughs]
Matt: Not that I know of, but . . .
Chris: But maybe you wouldn’t.
Matt: Yeah, I mean a lot of people think that there’s a lot of warning but, you know, the way this works, they have to keep trying right up until the end. So, they can’t really just tell everybody.
Chris: No, and I even understand that. Because of the particular circumstances of how I was employed, I had a little bit more window into it than some, or I should have had more window into it, but I was a relatively, maybe naïve is the right word, sort of employee just plugging away. I knew there was a problem. I thought it was not imminent.
Matt: Yeah. After that you worked with Amazon for a while, right?
Chris: I just needed a job, and my buddy from Solyndra had gotten a job over at Amazon even beforehand, and he recommended me. Actually, in terms of interviewing about business and how it interacts with physics, that job was sort of fun. My job was at Amazon Lab126. At the time the company was sort of firewalled from the main Amazon because Amazon didn’t want to pay sales tax in California, so they couldn’t do business in California. So, the company I worked for was just called Lab126. Although owned by Amazon, it was a series of shell companies and I don’t know what all, but they weren’t really Amazon at the time in some sense.
Anyway, they did hardware and my boss was a trained physicist and he gave me an interesting interview question. It was just a simple thing, one of these resistor networks around a cube and what’s the resistance between the two points. Even though I made a silly arithmetic error elsewhere, I started by saying, “Oh, well obviously by symmetry this and this has to be true.” He was like, “That’s when you got the job.” So, I was pleased to be able to draw on physics speak.
Matt: That’s awesome.
Chris: Yeah, it wasn’t a terribly interesting use of symmetry. I was just saying that these particular shapes, if you flatten out the thing and draw a simplified diagram it looks like this and then the problem gets easy. You know, it’s all the stuff we learn in, primarily, graduate school. How to think about the world. I love that approach and it has practical applications like applying to a job if you happen to have a physicist interviewing you.
Matt: [Laughs] Very practical.
Chris: [Laughs] Pretty rare circumstance, but it was great.
Matt: Awesome. So, you’re an entrepreneur now and you say there’s physics involved but a lot of what you’re doing doesn’t necessarily require a PhD. How do you view the value that having gone through a PhD brings to you now versus if you had just stopped at a bachelor’s or a master’s degree?
Chris: It’s hard to say. I mean you can never know what might have been in any detail, but there’s a couple of values for me in having gotten the PhD. I suppose you could attribute them to sort of psychological effect. I just like being able to say that I’m a PhD, which is a terrible reason to do it, but it’s satisfying in its own way. More importantly, as I’ve been pitching to investors recently, I give my pitch on the company, as I did earlier with you, and then I talk about the team. I just say, matter of fact, that I have my PhD in physics from Stanford and I was the optics expert at Solyndra. That has been very well received and being able to say that is more powerful than I might have expected.
Obviously, the only reason any of this matters is because the underlying degree itself matters. I started by talking about the perceived value of it, but the real value is what you learn. For me at least, it was in my third year of graduate school. I don’t know if I told you about this at the time, but there was an interesting experience my third year where I was called on by the department to tutor some other students in their first year. It had to do with the qualifying exam that Stanford does during the first and sometimes second years, depending on how you fare the first time. It was teaching these other students subjects that maybe I didn’t completely know myself, when I remember having this really vivid feeling sort of in the spring of 2000, this really vivid almost like a sudden realization: I’m a physicist now, I can teach this stuff. That feeling of like, I know what I’m doing. I have the confidence of all the stuff that I’ve learned, that I can now teach myself. That was, you know, intellectual, but a really great moment in my life. I wouldn’t have done that if I had stopped at my master’s or bachelor’s. I couldn’t personally achieve that until I was beyond the master’s level in my program, and I think that’s true of a lot of people.
Matt: I see. It didn’t really gel for you until that point?
Chris: Well, obviously I’d done well enough to get into graduate school. So, it gelled to some extent but there was still a feeling of I’m learning stuff, I’m getting better at these things, I’m progressing, but as for what I thought was required to call myself a physicist, it didn’t happen until later. Again, I keep focusing on the end results and the labels, but what really matters is a skill set that you can transfer. You can teach yourself, you can learn what you need to know, and that extra schooling was relevant. I think some people can accomplish that same sort of self-confidence and self-stability of thought in less time than I did, but that was the advantage of sticking it out for me.
Matt: I’d have to say I can identify with that. I don’t think for me the real sense of mastery came until a good chunk through graduate school.
Chris: Yeah, and we’re not the first people to have ever done a thing like this. Nobody said this explicitly, but I think the wisdom of the thousands and millions of people who have gone through higher education over the last x centuries, is exactly that. There’s some point, and you don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it typically happens between a master’s and a PhD, where you go from zero to one in some very real sense, in terms of your ability to suddenly run with it. There was a second phase for me during the writing of my thesis at the end. I was still doing analysis and research as I wrote, and getting through that, because you have to complete it. You can’t just do like 90% and say, hey I did a pretty good job. You have to finish it. That was the second lesser, but second great phase in … I don’t mean to focus on the self-confidence but that’s one way to phrase it. Like, “I can do whatever I need to do.” It’s been really neat ever since. You must have the same feeling.
Matt: Oh, yes. Actually finishing is a major accomplishment. It’s a big deal, yeah.
Chris: Having met a few people who were ABD, all but dissertation, was eye-opening, in a sort of scared straight kind of sense.
Chris: You know I’ve met a few people like that and I don’t think they have bad lives or anything, but it wasn’t who I wanted to be. I don’t mean to put a negative spin on it, but I think there’s an element of cautionary tale that applies in helping to stick it out, because my thesis writing process was more painful than average.
Matt: Yes, I agree . . .
Chris: Or maybe it’s always more painful than average . . .
Matt: [Laughs] I think there’s a little bit of that. I’m a strong proponent of the idea that if you go much past your master’s, you really want to finish.
Chris: Yeah, and I don’t mean that stopping at a master’s is in any way shameful or not impressive, just that it didn’t accomplish what I needed to accomplish.
Matt: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: I’ve known at least one person who stopped at their master’s and is a successful research scientist. There was a guy at Brookhaven that I knew and, good guy, good scientist, so he managed to run with it by just doing the equivalent of a PhD just in the course of his professional life. So, it is possible, but I like school. Had a lot of fun in graduate school, actually. The flexibility of the life more than offset the terrible pay. I didn’t learn until later that all my friends in computer science and electrical engineering were making 50 to 100% more than I was. They always thought I was cheap because I couldn’t pay for dinner and stuff. Now I know why. I didn’t find out until after we graduated. I was really ticked off.
Matt: Well, yes. For all the benefits of those years in graduate school, there’s a cost for sure.
Chris: For some of us, but some of the graduate students, oh man, it makes me bitter. They were making so much more money.
Matt: In different fields?
Chris: Yeah, because they were in computer science or electrical engineering and it makes sense now that I look back on it because there are market forces and you can’t keep anybody in graduate school if you don’t pay them sort of reasonably in those fields. Physicists I think are more easily exploited because our job opportunity afterwards are somewhat lesser, in a financial sense.
Matt: Fair enough.
Chris: I wasn’t actually exploited, I’m just being … mostly humorously bitter.
Matt: Absolutely. So, my wrap up question that I always like to end with. If you had one piece of key career advice that you could give to the folks behind us in graduate school now or undergrad, what would that be?
Chris: I saw a quote recently, which I think is gonna be my answer. It was focused on business questions, but I haven’t seen a sphere of life where it doesn’t apply. That said, the quote is: “Don’t play to win, play to learn.”
Matt: That’s good. I like that a lot.
Chris: I think it pretty much summarizes my personal philosophy.
Matt: I think that’s excellent. Very good advice. With that, thank you very much. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
Chris: Well, likewise. Nobody’s ever gonna turn down a chance to talk about themselves. So, thank you.
Matt: [Laughs] That is my secret weapon.
Chris: [Laughs] Absolutely.