“This Is New to Us”: PolyPV Pivots From Academia To Product Development

NC State professors Dr. Harald Ade (left) and Dr. Brendan O'Connor (center) are the co-founders of PolyPV. Dustin Abele (right) is an engineer on the team.

Say goodbye to heavy solar panels because PolyPV has engineered a way to apply polymer materials and photovoltaic devices to products, through combining academia with entrepreneurship.

Based out of NC State’s Centennial Campus, two professors at the university—Dr. Harald Ade and Dr. Brendan O’Connor—decided to not let their busy workloads stop them from creating this startup. This week, PolyPV will be one of the startups presenting at CED’s Venture Connect summit (March 29-30) in RTP.

“The two professors have a highly proven track record in terms of academic space with records and really thorough understanding of the physics in fundamental chemistry and science behind organic solar cells,” said Dustin Abele, another scientist on the PolyPV team.

PolyPV was started under an initiative that wanted to create startups that used academic technology to produce commercial products, Abele said.

The United States military also awarded PolyPV a grant so they could help them develop solar panel technology. Abele said that the military’s current technology is too heavy and hard to move, which does not meet many expectations of use and reliability, which made them seek out change.

While many heavier metals are used in solar panels today, Abele said the usage of polymer materials offers a more flexible and lightweight option that can increase power density.

“Theoretically, we could manufacture these a lot cheaper and for a more sustainable kind of future,” he said.

According to Abele, PolyPV’s devices take light from the sun, which drives electrons up from a chemical reaction and then produces power.

He said that he believes there is a hole in the market for green tech in North America as a whole, including in the Triangle, and the startup plans to fix this.

“There’s a lot of biochemistry and things like that,” Abele said. “But when it comes into the energy side of things, we feel like it’s lacking.”

Abele said that in late 2021, they produced lab-scale devices for the military, which they were happy with. By the end of this year, he said the company is hoping to have a minimal viable product (MVP) that the military can test in the field. If all goes well with the testing, it is planned for PolyPV to start producing their devices at a larger scale soon.

Although the military is their first customer, Abele said they hope to move into recreational technologies as well so they can focus on putting their product on mobile outdoor applications like tents and RVs. He said that when transitioning out of solely making military devices, they should not have to make too many changes.

“We should be able to take a military product, maybe change paint color on it and just shift it to a commercial avenue,” Abele said. “We really wouldn’t have to change any of the fundamental tech, everything all the way from ground up should be more or less the same.”

Since they are in the scale-up process of learning how everything will work and are preparing for their pre-seed round of funding, he said this is what mainly brought them to Venture Connect.

Abele said they are hoping to gain a lot from this experience, including finding potential investors, growing capital and addressing customer pain points. For the latter, he said they are specifically interested in learning how happy (or unhappy) customers are with the current state of solar panels and other energy technologies.

“This is new to us, coming from the academic side of things,” he said. “So, we definitely have some growing pains to go through and this is a part of that process of learning what it takes.”

Later this year and through 2024, Abele said they are looking to start focusing on consumer outreach, finding product-market fit and continuing to assess pain points facing customers. He said that the goal of this work is to prepare them to span farther than just producing a military product and begin creating a more commercial one.