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Engineering prof Ely Sachs resigns from MIT to go all-in at solar start-up 1366 Technologies

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 5, 2011 05:30 PM

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The federal government made a pretty significant commitment to 1366 Technologies last month — handing the Lexington company a $150 million loan — and now co-founder Emanuel "Ely" Sachs is doing the same. After a 25-year stint as a lecturer and engineering prof at MIT, he's giving up tenure at the institute to stay with 1366, a company he co-founded, as chief technical officer.

Sachs had been on leave from the MIT faculty, but MIT doesn't ordinarily extend professional leaves for its faculty beyond two academic years — so Sachs had to choose between the school and his start-up. "I am giving up one privilege for another," Sachs says.

1366 is designing processes so that silicon-based solar wafers can be made more cheaply, and the company's macro goal is to make it possible to produce power from the sun at a price that's competitive with coal-fired plants.

Sachs was earlier involved in developing the "string ribbon crystal growth" process for wafer production, which was commercialized by Evergreen Solar. He also developed key technologies at MIT that enabled inkjet printers to spit out models of three-dimensional objects, radically reducing the cost of making prototypes and spawning the field of 3-D printing.

There's a farewell party for Sachs happening this evening at MIT's faculty club.

The last high-profile, entrepreneurially-oriented prof to depart MIT was Rodney Brooks, the iRobot co-founder, who left to work on his start-up Heartland Robotics last year.

Update: Here's an excerpt from Sachs' remarks, delivered at the event tonight:

...I would never have been able to make my own contributions to photovoltaics, were it not for the positive impact of tenure which, at MIT at least, filters down to our students. In the late 1970’s, when I came back to MIT to get a PhD with a Hertz Fellowship in hand, the only faculty member engaged in PV work was the late David Adler of EECS, and he was working on a different branch of the PV tree. He helped me get lab space and made me part of his group, even though I did not contribute directly to his own research work. Woodie Flowers was my guardian angel within the ME Department. These generous and dedicated teachers were, to me, exemplars of one of the roles of tenure. Over 20 years later, immediately after the events of 9/11, I decided as a faculty member to turn my research program full time to PV. I was able to do so only because I had tenure. Funding was all but impossible to get for several years to come and although I had to work on a shoestring, the opportunity was there, and the work I started at that time eventually led to the founding of 1366. And even then, MIT, in the persons of the Provost and my Department Chair, have been extraordinarily generous in allowing me to take leave to help get the company off the ground.

So, given this long and fruitful history, what’s up with my decision to make this career change? Let me explain with a funny story. Notice that I have let you know the story is intended to be funny. That’s just in case there follows a moment of awkward silence and you are inclined to fill it with polite laughter.

The existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre walks into his favorite café in Paris and sits at his favorite table. A waiter greets him “good morning Mr Sartre. Shall I bring you your usual – coffee with cream? Satre sighs and shakes his head “No, I have discovered that I am lactose intolerant. From now on it will be coffee with no cream”. The waiter expresses his regret and hurries off to the kitchen. In a moment he returns looking almost panicked. “Mr Sartre, the kitchen has just run out of cream. May I instead bring you coffee with no milk?”

So I get my coffee – or in my case, I get to pursue my passion for photovotaics and my belief that electricity from sunlight in combination with new energy storage technologies, will be the mainstay of our energy economy by mid-century. But, I do have to give up the cream of tenure at MIT. Make no mistake about it – my heart is a little broken.

But distinct from the story, I get the milk of an exciting ride together with my fellow travelers at 1366. Today we see the news abuzz with tension about renewable energy, about manufacturing and about the intersection of renewable energy and manufacturing – right where 1366 lives.

Some say that through the development of new fossil fuel extraction technologies for oil and gas, we can just keep doing as we are doing and by the way, there is no human-induced global climate change. I say that it is a natural part of life that one generation creates problems for the next too solve, but this one is a step too far because in its slow motion it is gathering irresistible force.

Some say that renewable energy is just too tiny and can never be a significant part of our energy economy. I say that everything that is now big was once small.

Some say that we should turn in large measure to electricity from nuclear sources. But I say that the law of unintended consequences is as fundamental to human nature as are the laws of thermodynamics to the physical world.

Some say that renewables must be able to compete without subsidy, starting yesterday. I say that with proper accounting for societal impact that they would do so, starting now.

Some say that in the context of photovoltaics, crystalline silicon was a great starting point, but that, it is time to move “beyond silicon”. I say that the fundamentals of earth abundance, good performance, and demonstrated field reliability have always favored silicon. In addition, there is the powerful peloton effect of hundreds of efforts competing and moving toward a similar goal. This unleashes astonishing creativity and, pardon the pun, energy, much as it has in the world of microelectronics.

Most economists say that goods should be made in the lowest cost location – that this is the most efficient way and everyone benefits in the long run. I say maybe. But first let us take into account the broad immediate and future economic impacts beyond the individual company making the decisions. Let us account for the loss of expertise which then makes every future endeavor harder. And let us recognize that Aristotle might have been onto something when he referred to Man the Maker as one of the three aspects inherent to human nature and therefore, by extension, necessary for a functioning society.

Some say that renewable energy is just a commodity and that it doesn’t matter who controls the manufacture of them. I say maybe. But first, let us reflect on the observation that access to energy sources has been a major factor in determining the history of the last 60 years.

These seven debates , would make for an interesting ride even for anyone with a front row seat. I figure I’ve bought myself a pass to the arena itself. Please wish me and my fellow travelers luck as I do you.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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