Konarka harnesses the sun god
in pursuit of a scientist’s dream

Click here to enlarge image

LOWELL, Mass., Sept. 3, 2002 — Sukant Tripathy was an accomplished scientist, engineer and professor who dreamed of bringing electricity to impoverished regions such as his homeland of Bihar, India.

It was a dream that Tripathy never had the chance to achieve. He drowned nearly two years ago while on vacation in Hawaii, and died at age 48.

Today, however, his dream is being realized. His pioneering work in materials science has been formed into a business, Konarka Technologies, and the company is on the move.

Click here to enlarge image

Spun out of research Tripathy conducted at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Konarka makes plastics that use solar power to run electrical devices — for example, a chemical sensor that uses its plastic casing to harness power from sunlight. Tripathy’s colleagues and former students formed the company at the end of 2000, shortly after his death.

This summer has brought a flurry of activity to Konarka, no longer just honing its technology, but taking products to market. The company hired a new chief executive recently to oversee its commercial efforts and Konarka should close between $7 million and $8 million in venture funding sometime next month, the company said.

Executives credit Tripathy for laying the groundwork, and they dedicate a page on the company Web site to his contributions. Even the name “Konarka” refers to a Hindu temple in Orissa, India, one of Tripathy’s favorite places. Not coincidentally, the temple is dedicated to the sun god Surya.

The heart of Konarka’s technology is a new way to make photovoltaic cells (PVCs) from nanosized particles of titanium dioxide. Until now, PVCs have been made by heating the titanium crystals to 450 degrees Celsius and then coating them with a light-sensitive dye — a process known as “sintering.” Konarka has perfected a “cold-sintering” method that achieves the same result at temperatures of 150 degrees or lower.

Those cooler temperatures are critical to new uses for PVCs. When forged at higher temperatures, PVC material can only be coated onto glass, which makes for expensive, delicate product applications. Cold-sintering allows the PVC material to be coated onto plastics; in essence, a product’s outer shell becomes its power source.

The Konarka cell does not generate any more electricity than other power cells, or do so more efficiently. Its appeal is that the cell can be manufactured far more cheaply, so Konarka can churn out a large supply and, the company hopes, put them into all sorts of devices.

“It far outstrips what the silicon industry is doing,” said Russell Gaudiana, Konarka’s vice president of research and development.

Bill Beckenbaugh, Konarka’s chief executive, said the company will start by making cheaper versions of products that already use PVCs such as weather observation posts, chemical sensors and emergency lighting. Traditional PVCs have existed for decades, so Beckenbaugh wants to follow the path already carved out by customers and older PVC businesses.

“Those markets establish the conventional wisdom of uses,” he said. “We want to eliminate the need of extra generators or anything that burns a fuel.”

In the long term, Beckenbaugh hopes Konarka can also provide self-sufficient electrical devices to poor or isolated regions of the world, where it is too expensive to wire individual homes and businesses to an electrical grid.

Konarka has demonstration models of its PVC now, and plans to start manufacturing them itself sometime next year. But Beckenbaugh said Konarka will need other manufacturing and sales partnerships if it is to thrive.

Konarka already has a lucrative contract with the Natick Soldier Center, an Army research outfit in nearby Natick, Mass, which has brought Konarka several hundred thousand dollars in revenue.

Beckenbaugh said that working with the center gives Konarka an entry into the defense business and furthers Konarka’s research on “solar fiber,” which will shift its PVC technology from plastics into textiles.

Lynne Samuelson, a research chemist at the Soldier Center who works with Konarka, said cold-sintering has been vital to the Army’s efforts at self-powering devices and the much-hyped initiative to create the “Soldier of the Future.”

“If you heat at high temperatures, you can’t make them on plastics,” she said. “That’s always been a problem. I think Konarka has a lot of promise.”

Samuelson said other companies have tried to tackle cold-sintering or other new PVC technologies, but “Konarka has taken it much further,” especially in manufacturing.


Company file: Konarka Technologies
(last updated Sept. 3, 2002)

Konarka Technologies

600 Suffolk St.,
Fourth Floor
Lowell, Mass., 01854

Advanced photovoltaic research at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, led by Sukant Tripathy, led to the low-temperature materials processing technology that would become the cornerstone of Konarka. Tripathy had established the school’s Institute for NanoScience Engineering and Technology and founded its Center for Advanced Materials in 1992. Shortly after his accidental death in December 2000, his colleagues founded Konarka to focus on the technology Tripathy helped develop.

Power supplies

Small tech-related products and services
Konarka has developed a solar cell that is flexible, lightweight, portable and usable for multiple applications. It is a result of Tripathy’s breakthrough “cold-sintering” process that allows photovoltaic cells (PVC) to be coated onto materials other than glass, reducing the cost of solar cell manufacturing.

Bill Beckenbaugh: president and chief executive officer
Russell Gaudiana: vice president of research and development
Paul Wormser: chief operating officer


Investment history
Konarka has been funded by the University of Massachusetts, undisclosed angel investors and Zero Stage Capital, which contributed roughly $500,000 to its seed funding round in August of 2001. Konarka hopes to close on $7 million to $8 million in funding this September.

Selected strategic partners and customers
Konarka holds a contract with the Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts that has helped bring in several hundred thousand dollars in revenue.


  • VHF Technologies
  • Cambridge Display Technology
  • Goals
    In the short term, the company wants to begin manufacturing of cold-sintered PVCs; in the long term, Konarka wants to forge manufacturing partnerships and launch products using the company’s technology

    There are pre-existing concepts about what products are suitable for PVCs. There’s also a need for manufacturing partners to achieve broad, mass-market success.

    What keeps them up at night?
    The possible reluctance by manufacturers or consumers to embrace the concept of solar-powered devices.

    URL: www.konarkatech.com
    Phone: 978-654-6961
    Fax: 978-937-2062
    E-mail: [email protected]

    — Research by Gretchen McNeely


    Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.