SunDrive at the forefront of solar tech


    Solar tech company SunDrive plans to develop Australia’s first photovoltaic manufacturing facility within AGL’s Hunter Valley Energy hub. 

    In March this year, a deal was signed partnering energy giant AGL with tech startup SunDrive to assess building a first-of-its-kind photovoltaic solar panel manufacturing plant on the site of the decommissioned Liddell coal-fired power station in the NSW Hunter Valley.

    It’s been a long road for SunDrive co-founders Vincent Allen (CEO) and David Hu (president). The former flatmates, who shared an apartment in Sydney’s beachside suburb of Maroubra as students at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), say they have developed the world’s most efficient commercial-sized solar cell.

    In the beginning, Allen was undertaking the world’s only dedicated solar engineering degree at UNSW, while Hu was studying finance. He had emigrated to Australia from China when he was 16. Allen won an industry scholarship at one of the world’s top solar manufacturers in Singapore, during which time he learned how solar cells were created.

    “Once I learned how a standard solar cell was made, I naturally wanted to figure out how to make them in a more efficient way,” he says.

    Seized by the idea of researching this further, Allen began a PhD at UNSW in 2013. The university is widely regarded as a global leader in commercial solar technology. In 2023 alone, Allen estimates billions of dollars worth of solar panels were made globally based on technology invented at UNSW.

    Back in their share house, Hu and Allen spent hours discussing possible business ideas. Hu came from a family involved in clean energy businesses and Allen admired his commercial acumen. The pair envisioned a business that accelerated the research and development of next- generation solar technology.

    “I wanted to start a company with someone who thinks differently to me and has different strengths, but also shares the same values,” says Allen. “David is a true strategic thinker. There’s no-one else I would have started SunDrive with.”

    Based on Allen’s promising PhD results, the pair launched SunDrive in 2015. The business model was designed to solve the fragmentation that exists in the process of commercialising a new solar technology. There are typically three parties involved — a university that develops the IP, an equipment supplier that builds the machine and a solar manufacturer that distributes it.

    Friction is not uncommon, according to Allen. “Whoever is developing the IP may not consider all the design considerations for the machine, and whoever is building the machine doesn’t understand the IP,” he says. “The manufacturer is left with the financial risk in trying to commercialise the technology. The big thesis for SunDrive is doing all three of these things under the one roof.”

    The SunDrive founders hoped their solution to combine the three functions would allow the company to innovate faster and to better capture and protect the value of its IP. However, in the beginning, it was an uphill battle to enter into collaborative arrangements with other companies for the use of experimental materials.

    “This applies to a lot of startups — when you’re starting, the company is small and lacks credibility,” says Hu. “The big companies don’t really want to work with you. They were totally uninterested. No-one returned our emails or phone calls.”

    SunDrive was also operating in stealth mode in order to protect its IP — therefore keeping its activities largely under wraps for commercial reasons. Nonetheless, Hu attended global conferences and did his best to leverage new connections and networks. He says the credibility of being associated with UNSW was a significant help.

    Investment arrives

    SunDrive persisted, and when it was able to demonstrate the value of its technology, the tide began to turn. The company’s first investor was Zhengrong Shi, in 2015. He had also obtained his PhD from UNSW and possesses somewhat legendary status in the solar industry. Shi was known as the “Sun King” because of the initial success of his company Suntech Power, which, for a time, made him one of the wealthiest people in China. He is currently chair of SunDrive’s board.

    Other board members include Sylvia Tulloch, founder of former ASX-listed solar R&D company Dyesol and Niki Scevak, co-founder and partner at Blackbird Ventures. Tesla chair Robyn Denholm MAICD and former federal Innovation Minister Wyatt Roy sit on SunDrive’s advisory board.

    Other investors flocked, including Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes, Blackbird Ventures, Main Sequence Ventures and Virescent Ventures, which manages the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Innovation Fund. Hu says leveraging the respect of its board members and investors in the industry has been critical to its success.

    Another significant point of difference is that SunDrive’s silicon cells are manufactured with copper rather than silver. This has several advantages. Silver is a precious metal, costly and in limited supply. The Silver Institute says demand for silver for PV cells has grown threefold since 2014 and that 30 per cent of the world’s industrial silver supplies went into making solar cells in 2023. It forecasts that the demand from the sector will grow fivefold by the end of the decade. However, copper is 100 times cheaper and 1000 times more abundant than silver, and more efficient in producing electricity.

    What comes next?

    The focus over the past eight years has been on scaling from a small, lab-sized solar cell to a commercial-sized one. Now, SunDrive’s 60 staff are operating a 6000sqm facility in Kurnell, in South Sydney. “This facility is all about demonstrating our ability to produce a large-scale, commercial pilot line of cells that can be put into a solar panel and certified,” says Hu. “If you were to operate our facility round the clock for 365 days a year, you’d be able to make about four million solar cells every year. It is a stepping stone to our next facility and full-blown manufacturing.”

    At the moment, only about 4.5 per cent of global electricity generation comes from solar PV according to the International Energy Agency. For the world to achieve net zero carbon emissions targets, a large percentage of the world’s energy will need to come from solar, says Allen. SunDrive is keen to bring manufacturing back onshore.

    In 2021, SunDrive announced it had made the world’s most efficient commercial-size solar cell. “As an early-stage company, this was a very proud moment for us,” says Hu. “Those kinds of feats are usually reserved for large established companies, or large, well-established research institutions.”

    The duo think Australia can become a global solar manufacturing hub by the end of the decade, with the potential to house the world’s five largest solar farms. They believe Australia possesses the necessary tech, talent and logistics advantages to achieve this, but know skills development is critical.

    “Australia has an opportunity to be a global powerhouse,” says Allen. “We have the fastest- growing rooftop solar market in the world. We have invented most of today’s commercial solar technology, have the best minerals in the ground and are blessed with abundant sunshine. Australia has a large landmass and a low population density. No other country has those ingredients.”

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Follow the Sun’ in the June 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.

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