All you need is an idea.
The American Made Solar Challenge aims to showcase and propel entrepreneurs who have an idea of how to transform the solar industry but don’t have the money, resources, or connections to bring their idea to market .
The American Made Network has more than 200 individuals, industry experts, organizations, and 17 Department Of Energy (DOE) national labs that all provide support to teams that enter the competition. The competition offers funding to finalists and helps facilitate interactions with the industry experts that can help expedite bringing new products to the market.
“A special part of the competition is providing that support,” Becca Jones-Albertus, the Director of the Solar Power Technologies Office (SETO) in the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, told Solar Magazine.
What makes a difference for an entrepreneur to bring their product to market is having the right connections at the right time and finding those people. We do that.
How the Challenge works
In 2017, the American Made Solar Challenge launched to support entrepreneurs earlier in the process, by taking an idea and providing them with the resources to develop a prototype.
In just three years, the most significant change to the competition has been there are more finalists. Ten teams of finalists can now qualify for $75,000 in vouchers to redeem through DOE- network and labs, which is double the amount previously giving them in the voucher process. The increase in cash prizes and voucher amounts helps boost support and gives finalists greater access to resources, Jones-Albertus said.
“Finding the right connections can be really hard,” Jones-Albertus said. “The Challenge helps to make those connections more serendipitous. We are looking to support diversity and different pathways to making a meaningful impact in the US solar space.”
Anyone with an idea can apply. The entrepreneurs that will benefit the most are those who have an idea that can realistically be brought to market within a year, according to Jones-Albertus.
“People only need an idea to enter, they just need to describe how it can transform the solar industry,” Jones-Albertus said.
We have people that are at various stages of the cycle involved. If someone is further along, that’s great; if you’re already on the market, our prize won’t provide a lot of value to them. We also are looking for technology that can make progress in one year, instead of 10, if a submission that will take 10 years to develop is just in the idea phase, it won’t be a strong finalist.
These ideas on how to transform the solar industry vary greatly, as well. The “diversity of products that bubble up are very exciting,” Jones-Albertus said.
“We are looking to broadly support innovations across the solar space, to parts of the solar panels, to support structures like racking, installation, power electronic to grid, to concentrate solar power systems, really the whole range,” Jones-Albertus said.
Each round has new participants and ideas. Past participants are eligible to participate but with a new idea.
The judges evaluate contestants based on their potential for successful manufacturing in the United States, if the technology is at the right step for the challenge to be involved, and the entrepreneur’s ability to achieve project goals, as well as their potential impact to reduce the cost of solar.
“The national labs and American Made Network more broadly have a real diversity of experts and resources a lot of opportunities to find a specific skill set or facilities for entrepreneurs to utilize,” Jones-Albertus said. “We are seeing some teams use labs to help with performance validation of products, and that third-party certified verification is very important.”
Round One winners
Round One showcased two diverse ideas that would help progress the solar industry.
The Solar Inventions Team, from Atlanta, GA, won with their submission “Breakthrough PV cell & module architecture,” which essentially means they created a new design for the photovoltaic cell.
Their submission provides an ultra-low-cost breakthrough PV cell architecture. The C3 increases power and reduces hotspots and shading impacts. It works with PERC, HJT, BSF, bi-facial, and nearly all module assembly lines. Anyone can view their submission video here.
“At its heart, the semiconductor that collects sunlight into panels, the cell itself is a new design that aims to improve the reliably of the solar panel itself. It electrically divides the cell to avoid hot spots, improve safety, and since winning, they have pilot projects and sales,” Jones-Albertus said.
The second winner Phase3 Photovoltaics won with “Factory Installed Solar for Manufactured Homes.” Their submission is a pilot phase of testing of “cleverly designed” power integration for a “new wave of American homebuyers.”
“If solar is built into homes in a factory during the manufacturing process, it provides solar at a lower cost per watt,” Jones-Albertus said. “This helps the cost of solar be built into the home mortgage, which makes it easier financing, compared to standard industrial installation.”
“It’s been really fun to watch them.”
Adapting due to COVID-19
“COVID-19 has been impacting life in so many ways, and every way, the American Made Solar Challenge is no different,” Jones-Albertus said.
In response to the challenges COVID-19 poses, the Challenge extended its round two and round three timelines, to give the Challenge and entrepreneurs time to adapt to the new circumstances. Due to the pandemic, some partners are unavailable, there are delays in the supply chain, and individuals involved in the competition have personal challenges to deal with, as well.
Usually, the demo day, when entrepreneurs present their prototype, is a large, in-person event. The Challenge transitioned all demo day events to virtual events.
“We had a demo day for round 3, and announced all the finalists via a live virtual event,” Jones-Albertus said. “There were 10 finalists, with $100,000 in cash prizes and $75,000 in vouchers. Our demo days are public-facing so that people can attend, and we are hopeful a wider set of people to attend virtually than normal because they don’t have to travel.”
What’s next for the Challenge
“It will come to a really exciting conclusion on the December, round 3 demo day,” Jones-Albertus said.
Round Four was also just announced, with submissions being accepted now and the deadline set for October 8.
“We’ve been really impressed so far and are excited to see what else we get in a new round,” Jones-Albertus said. comment