Solaires Enterprises wants to change the way we harness energy from the sun

The cleantech company is developing a material that will better capture solar energy through our windows, cellphones, and smartwatches.

“Imagine that everything that uses a battery will no longer need to be plugged into the grid in order to be recharged,” said Fabian de la Fuenta, co-founder and CEO of Solaires Enterprises. Personally, I would love to live in a world where I never lose nor break another charging cable — and thankfully, Victoria-based Solaires is building towards one where it could be possible.

Co-founders of Solaires: Fabian de la Fuente, CEO (left); Sahar Sam, chief scientific officer right). Photo: Solaires

Co-founders of Solaires: Sahar Sam, chief scientific officer (left); Fabian de la Fuente, CEO (right);. Photo: Solaires

Currently, about 95 percent of solar panels are powered by silicon, as we commonly see on rooftops and solar farms. However, de la Fuente noted that silicon solar panels depend on the mining of silica, a raw material that is transformed into silicon through large volumes of water and energy. The panels are also heavy and relatively rigid, which limits their applications.

Rather than silicon, Solaires capitalizes on an emerging material called perovskite — a crystal compound that can be made up of different combinations of elements, such as calcium titanium oxide (CaTiO3). “In order to produce our product, it's a chemical composition — we don’t use any scarce resource,” said de la Fuente. “Our technology is very light, flexible, and translucent; something that silicon cannot be.”

Perovskite can be an appealing alternative to silicon in solar energy applications because of its potential uses beyond the typical installation of solar panels on rooftops. De la Fuente is particularly excited by the malleable and translucent properties of perovskite. “We want to create this incredible, flexible photovoltaic film; one that you're going to be able to wrap around an electric vehicle, a window, or building facade [...] so you can enjoy the natural light coming from a window, even if these photovoltaic cells are installed.”

In the lab: Sahar Sam, chief science officer and co-founder (left); Deepak Gangadharan, materials and technology lead (right). Photo: Solaires

Solaires is in its early stages as a spinoff from the University of Victoria, co-founded by de la Fuente alongside Sahar Sam, the company’s chief science officer. Sam completed her PhD and postdoctoral work at the University of Victoria in materials and mechanical engineering, where she developed transparent and conductive films for applications in touchscreens and solar cells.

Nonetheless, the company faces significant scientific challenges and competition in developing perovskites for solar cell applications. “Perovskites were discovered around 100 years ago — however, about 20 years ago, somebody discovered that they could be used for photovoltaic purposes,” said de la Fuente. It’s since been a 20-year global R&D race to formulate the best perovskite that is stable enough to commercially harness the sun’s energy in a solar cell — currently, the material is infamously fragile and doesn’t last as long as silicon.

In April of last year, Solaires developed a product that would bring it one step closer to solar applications while bringing in revenue. “We were able to create a perovskite ink, which we call solar ink,” said de la Fuente. “This is capable of having a longer shelf life than all of the other companies’ inks, which brings the manufacturability possibility.” Solaires plans to sell to partner customers who are either interested in developing perovskite solar cells, or embedding it in tandem within existing silicon solar cells.

A sample of Solaires’ perovskite ink product. Photo: Solaires

The company is currently raising bridge funding until it opens a seed round early next year, to help scale production of its perovskite solar films. It’s a challenging time to fundraise, admits Michelle Scarborough, managing partner at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). “Investors are looking at how much revenue you're able to generate and how much you can curb your cost spending, so that your spending is more in line with your ability to get to the cash flow breakeven,” she said. Nonetheless, the company has managed to attract a number of local investors optimistic for its success. “Victoria is a burgeoning market. Now, the tech scene is starting to get really, really hot there, which is really interesting to see [...] some great investors are spending a lot of time in Victoria,” said Scarborough.

De la Fuente names a wealth of local support in the Victoria startup community, such as Alacrity and VIATEC. “The ecosystem here in Victoria [...] is really, really good,” he said. “When we have a question, when we have a problem, there's always someone who can help, or at least someone who can introduce us to somebody who can help.” That Victoria-based innovation is now being recognized Canada-wide. Solaires was the sole Western Canadian finalist at CIX Summit in Toronto — the country’s largest startup curation program and investment conference — earlier this week

De la Fuente believes the future is bright for Solaires. “To date, very, very, very [few] solar cells are made with perovskites [...] We already have it as a prototype. However, I want to have it in my hands as a mass-production product by March of next year so I can show investors, ‘This is what we have done.’ […] We know how to make it – we just need to run the machines, which are expensive!”