The Bake Sales of the Future

By Maggie Nelson

CrowdsourceFUndingRome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are highly elaborate research projects realized so quickly, especially when grants are involved. Funding is the lifeblood of any business, but when your ware is knowledge and innovation, sometimes you can’t rely on revenue. Finding it where you can is the name of the game. 

Enter the researchers and scientists at OSU, who have successfully crafted a highly innovative solar panel coating, known as MoreSun. It drastically reduces energy losses by reducing solar reflection. With the ability to be applied in the field to already operational panels, it is the first and only coating of its kind. If coatings were applied to the 320 million installed solar panels that exist throughout the world today, 3.2 gigawatts of new solar power would be produced, displacing a whopping 72 million tons of carbon dioxide.

For the researchers on the MoreSun project, traditional money-raising methods such as federal grants and angel funding aren’t quite cutting muster these days, at least not on their own. Obtaining grant money can be a highly competitive and arduous adventure, but with new crowdfunding websites like Indiegogo, researchers and entrepreneurs can target individuals who may have known little about the project before, highlight specific benefits of the project, and accrue funds far more rapidly.

When it comes to timing and planning with a project like MoreSun, the road can be unpredictable, and quite rocky. In fact, it wasn’t until after a few failed attempts, that the MoreSun team received their STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) phase 1 and 2 grants. According to Paul Ahrens, the president and CEO of CSD Nano—the company within the MoreSun project—on average, it takes about six months to apply for a federal or angel grant, angel grants being the funding provided by family, friends, and/or venture capitalists. However, for many like Chih-Hung Chang, a professor at OSU, co-founder and adviser for CSD Nano Inc., and from whose research the MoreSun technology originated, the process can amount to a whopping two to three years.

Ahrens elaborated on the subject, “Federal grants for R&D are very competitive. With the NSF [National Science Foundation] it is very important that you have a strong business plan as well as strong, innovative technology.”

With the specific grant, the SBIR/STTR (Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer), which the MoreSun group received, it is required to provide a business plan. It may seem a bit strange that a group of scientific researchers working on a solar energy project should be required to implement business strategy and analysis into their study, and some may disagree with the requirements to provide an extensive business plan on top of sound research. However, in the entirety of the federal R&D grant budget, these only make up a sliver of 4%.

Ahrens also believes the business plan to be a vital part because, in his words, “These grants are meant for innovative technology with near term commercial applications.” Furthermore, other separate branches award billions of dollars to R&D grants based solely on science. 

Researchers at several universities are now using crowdfunding websites to ease these grapples with business strategies and time. In Chang’s words, Indiegogo is a means “to get useful market information like responses from solar panel owners.” The campaign is a way to receive guidance, and find out quickly and effectively why their coating may or may not work in the field.

One of the most powerful uses of the Indiegogo campaign is its ability to spread word and amass support. “Since the MoreSun technology could potentially save birds and displace CO2, we hope that through the crowdfunding campaign we could gain support from people who care about our environment and sustainability,” said Chang.

When the group discovered that uncoated panels are contributing to polarized light pollution, a phenomenon which potentially causes grave damage to bird, insect, and other animal populations, a new sense of urgency grew within the project. Crowdfunding offered a means for rapidly notifying the public that MoreSun coating can diminish polarized light pollution caused by solar panels.

When asked how long it would take to apply the coating to all 320 million solar panels worldwide, Ahrens replied, “Process scale-up is easy—make solution in each country, make applicators, hire local crew. Customer acquisition and adoption is the rate limiting step.”

Ahrens also added, “The key benefit is speed. Angel funding and government grants can take months to succeed. Our Indiegogo campaign is 45 days.” In comparison to the funding the MoreSun project will receive from grants, the campaign funding is feeble, but what is important is that funding through Indiegogo brings money in fast, and lets the work begin.

One may wonder if this genre of crowdfunding websites is a danger to the more technical fields. Ahrens doesn’t seem to think so, saying, “The amount of money in crowdfunding is very small compared to the billions of dollars invested in corporate and government R&D.” So although it’s a great way to get a kick start on something, or alert the public of a grave issue which could have gone unnoticed, generally the funds raised through crowdfunding just don’t compare to what the government and corporations are willing to fork out.

To help support the MoreSun team and contribute to their Indiegogo campaign, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/upgrade-solar-arrays-more-power-from-moresun/x/8568146. The campaign ends Friday, Sept. 26.

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