How SunDrive is revolutionising solar energy tech, with $8 million in the bank and backing from Mike Cannon-Brookes

SunDrive

SunDrive co-founders Vince Allen and David Hu. Source: supplied.

Aussie solar panel startup SunDrive has emerged from stealth mode, securing $5 million in Series A funding, plus a $3 million grant, for its tech bringing efficiency to renewable power.

The funding round is led by Aussie VC Blackbird and Grok Ventures, the firm headed up by Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie.

Blackbird founding partner Niki Scevak has also joined the board of the startup.

SunDrive has also banked $3 million in grant funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Founded in 2015 by university roommates David Hu and Vince Allen, SunDrive is working towards commercialising technology Allen developed through his PhD in solar power, ultimately building what Hu says will be the most efficient solar cells ever made in Australia.

The trend in the solar industry for the past few years has been to drive costs down, and down again, Hu tells SmartCompany.

That’s usually done by improving the efficiency of the panels themselves, or reducing the costs of the raw materials.

But, this has been going on for some years, and at this stage, the price limit of the materials has been reached, and mainstream solar cells have reached their efficiency limits too.

SunDrive, however, is working on a product that replaces the silver electrodes in the solar cells with copper.

Not only is silver an expensive precious metal, but there’s also not that much of it around, Hu explains.

“Currently, the solar industry consumes almost 20% of the global industry silver consumption.”

Demand for solar power is on the up. If the industry expands to five times its current size, we could see one industry consuming 100% of the world’s silver, “which is impossible”, Hu adds.

“The silver is actually limiting the solar industry from growing,” he says.

“Copper is 100 times more abundant than silver, so the expansion is not an issue.”

Finally, the founder says using copper also makes the solar cells themselves more efficient, because copper electrodes are more efficient than silver ones.

So, why haven’t solar panels used copper electrodes all along? This is where we get to the tech Allen developed during his PhD.

It all comes down to the way the electrodes are attached to the silicon of the solar cell, Hu explains, which is done through a process called electroplating.

“If you directly plated copper onto silicon, the copper won’t stick. It will pull off.”

Allen’s technology ensures the copper sticks to the silicon. That, Hu says, simply hasn’t existed until now.

Good things take time

The duo may ultimately be on a path to commercialising this tech, but selling solar panels is not a near-term goal for SunDrive.

Rather, this $8 million will be used for tech development, with three key milestones in mind.

Current mainstream solar cells achieve an efficiency of about 22.5%, Hu explains. SunDrive is working towards hitting 24%.

The team is also working towards figuring out a way to connect the solar cells within a solar module together, he adds.

Then, the founders will build their first prototype production line, creating the tool to manufacture the solar cells themselves.

In fact, if he’s thinking optimistically, Hu doesn’t see this tech hitting the market for some two-and-a-half or three years.

When you’re developing tech to move the needle in an emerging sector, things don’t necessarily come quickly.

“You have to believe in what you’re doing,” Hu says.

In the early days, the co-founders met some resistance in trying to work with partners or source materials. Because they were a small and unknown business, “they were not willing to collaborate,” he says.

But, he sees it all being worthwhile.

“As long as you believe yourself and put 100% of your energy and efforts in … no regrets.”

Of course, now the founders have some of the biggest names in startupland behind them.

Blackbird is one of Australia’s most well-known and respected VC investors. It also typically invests in long-term projects, and startups with big ambitions.

Speaking to SmartCompany when Blackbird closed its $500 million fund back in August, Scevak said the fund seeks out pre-revenue, pre-product businesses that have the potential to make a big impact later on.

“We want ambition to be the best in the world, not just the best in Australia,” he said.

“Entrepreneurs who are attacking a global market, who have original ideas as to products that will reshape or reimagine those global markets.”

Of course, Mike Cannon-Brookes is both Aussie tech royalty and a fierce advocate for climate change policy.

Both lead investors have been “very supportive” Hu says.

“We feel very fortunate to have both of them involved.”

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