The Enovix model for the development and production of our 3D silicon lithium-ion cells closely resembles the SunPower model for low-cost, high-performance solar cells. This is due to our relationships with Cypress Semiconductor, and, especially, with T.J. Rodgers. I recently had an opportunity to learn more about the history and legacy of SunPower, including interviews with T.J. Rodgers, founder of Cypress Semiconductor, and with Chuck Stone, Enovix vice president of manufacturing engineering. Here’s the first part of what I learned.
Pioneering High-Performance Solar Cell Technology: 1987 – 2001
SunPower was founded in 1985 by Dr. Richard Swanson, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. SunPower was initially funded through government grants and VC firms. According to Dr. Swanson, “Starting in about 1991, SunPower went through a long period of trying to find its way.”
This included developing innovative, high-performance solar cells for a record setting solar-powered automobile and remotely piloted, high-altitude aircraft. This period culminated when SunPower provided to Helios, a NASA partner, a 35-kW array of hand-made solar cells that helped set a new altitude world record of more than 96,000 feet in 2001. NASA wanted to order more solar cells, but only if SunPower could significantly reduce the $200/W cost.
As the holidays approached in 2001, Dr. Swanson was unable to celebrate his company’s technological achievement. He knew that SunPower would have to scale up its production and reduce its cost to survive. But high-volume, low-cost production was not the forte of his largely academic research team, and he was facing the prospect of laying off half the SunPower workforce. A chance encounter with an old college classmate would enable him to avoid that action and forever change SunPower’s fortunes.