Although ECD’s growth over the decades gave many employees a comfortable nest egg, it was slow and steady and never generated the kind of intense, instant wealth that rewarded employees at firms like Microsoft, Google, or Facebook. Headhunters often recruited the company’s multitalented engineers with promises of rapid riches, and some accepted lucrative offers only to find they missed the ECD culture.
“ECD was a reflection of Stan and Iris’s personalities, and each one of us was an integral part of the firm,” says Boil Pashmakov, who left ECD to work in the semiconductor industry and has now returned to work in Ovshinsky’s new company. “In Silicon Valley, it is all about the money.”
But notwithstanding Sarbanes-Oxley, Ovshinsky sometimes showed a side of his character that suggests he should not have been at the head of a publicly traded company. Like many a high-tech entrepreneur, he might have prospered more by taking the role of chief scientific officer while handpicking a cadre of professionals to manage the company. “He truly has a different set of beliefs. He’s out to change the world, and he doesn’t care about the money,” says Patrick Klersy, another ECD veteran who has joined the new venture.
After his retirement, Ovshinsky languished for a year. He says he felt he was waiting for his life to end. Then in 2007, in short order he married Rosa Young, a Ph.D. physicist who had worked at ECD since 1986, and launched his fourth company.
Rosa says that Ovshinsky’s proposal of marriage came as a surprise. She had already resigned from ECD herself, accepted a professor’s position in Sichuan province in southwestern China, where she was born, and purchased a small apartment there. But, she adds, Ovshinsky has been surprising her for nearly 25 years now, never more than when he hired her in the first place, and then put her in charge of projects far removed from her academic background.
Few of Ovshinsky’s old colleagues were surprised, however, when he announced plans for a new company. Considering the spotlight on global warming and renewed concerns about dependence on petroleum products, he simply could not remain on the sidelines. President Barack Obama’s appointment of Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist, as secretary of energy appeared to signal a fresh opening for sustainable energy development, and Ovshinsky felt he had to contribute.
Ovshinsky bootstrapped Ovshinsky Solar with $3.5 million of his own funds, and is now seeking $16 million in new capital to move from proof of concept to a small production facility. He says he will need an additional $350 million to reach full-scale manufacturing by 2012. The goal is a machine capable of producing a gigawatt per year of solar capacity, which is more than the output of a typical nuclear power plant, and more than 30 times the output of the largest current production lines at any photovoltaic manufacturer.
“Other people’s idea of a gigawatt is to do it serially — build one machine and then another and another,” says Ovshinsky. “If you look at all the cost and time of doing that, you are never going to get there. You can actually put a couple of our gigawatt machines in an ordinary factory. My costs will be lower than burning coal. That means pennies per watt. And that’s the world revolution that’s needed.”
Increasing solar capacity requires improving the conversion efficiency of the semiconductor materials used or increasing the coating rate in production. It is presently impossible to have both high efficiency and high speed, and current manufacturing processes can be improved only incrementally.