by Ann Mary Quarandillo
"It's not that easy being green."
After 35 years creating startup companies, with more than 20 in the green energy field, Jim Egerton '77, knows how Kermit the Frog felt when he first sang his song to Sesame Street audiences back in 1970.
"When I first got into working with alternative energy, people were very excited about the technology as a demonstration vehicle," he says. "But then reality set in."
Although Egerton truly believes there is a viable future for the technology, renewable energy sources have a number of challenges to overcome before they can be integrated into the mainstream. The hard part, he says, is that even though lots of companies can see new technology as a good thing, there are barriers—and costs—to integrating it into their current processes. "A good idea isn't good enough," he explains. "You need to show that you can implement it with a rational amount of investment so they can do it."
That's exactly what Egerton does with his current company, Magnolia Solar, which has developed a new ultra-high efficiency thin-film solar cell. As executive vice president of product development, he's using his background in engineering and business to find, and more importantly, help implement this nanotechnology, which holds promise for increasing the efficiency of current solar cells and the amount of current that can be generated.
But in today's economy, even the best ideas are having a hard time finding traction.
Egerton's job is to convince potential industry partners that the investment is worthwhile. He's worked throughout his career both on his own and with a number of different engineers to license new technologies and write patents for those that have broad economic value. With Magnolia, he is working to license new technology to solar panel manufacturers, then work with them to implement it into their manufacturing processes.
And Magnolia's inventions have definite potential. Improving the efficiency of solar cells is critical to making solar power viable on a wide scale. Current cells allow a significant amount of power to be wasted through reflection, or in the process of converting the sunlight into watts of power. Magnolia's new cells use nanoparticles to help absorb light better, so they need fewer square inches to generate the same amount of power. "The holy grail is to get the cost down to below a dollar a watt, and right now it's about three times that," Egerton explains. "We're working on a number of devices that are very exciting, but they're also very complicated. And more complicated means more expensive. So even though the technology has immediate application, it's hard to get the industry to pay attention."
Egerton's experience in both engineering and business should make industry partners look twice. Not only has he developed and implemented new technologies for companies like IBM (his first job out of Evergreen) and Honeywell, and co-developed a new kind of memory chip which was bought by Lockheed Martin, he is also the co-inventor on four patents and has five more pending.
"Lots of the problems we have with technology are integration problems—not just chemistry or just technology—and Evergreen taught that very well, because you were learning science from an integrated point of view," he says. "You didn't get stuck just learning organic chemistry, you learned to work with other sciences and integrate them. Unlike other schools I attended, it was more like what life is really like when you're trying to do technologies. Anyone who has done any kind of research knows that integration is the key."
While working for IBM, Egerton studied electrical engineering at Stanford before leaving to do consulting work in Silicon Valley just as the tech boom was taking off. Later, he completed his master's in government and management at Harvard, and earned an advanced diploma in entrepreneurship at the University of Cambridge. When he needs to learn a new technology, he'll audit or take a course at Stanford or Columbia online. The key in his business is to always be looking forward to what's next—what will keep the company going to the next generation.
"It's not as easy as it looks when you see something like Facebook really take off," he says. "For too many people these days, business strategy equals quick gratification. Find a product or service that gives you the big break, then retire to someplace sunny. But few businesses are really like that, and they're not sustainable."
For Egerton, being an entrepreneur means making something that improves the way people live. "The best business is creating a technology, getting it into a product to make that product work better, and getting it accepted in the marketplace—there's a need for it and you were able to fulfill that need," he says. "I work with products and technologies we need to live our daily lives. To do it more cost effectively, and better environmentally—that's what really excites me."
Which brings him back to sustainable energy. He is currently installing wind energy equipment on his home, and believes that solar, when the prices go down, could furnish up to 20 percent of the power in the United States. There are challenges, including finding the raw materials for certain types of equipment, and of course, dealing with waste. "If we are going to generate it, we need to deal with those problems," he says. "But is there a promising future for green energy? Absolutely.