Luminate NY winner is off to a fast start here

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The winner of Luminate NY has hit the ground running. In roughly a month since winning the coveted $1 million prize, SunDensity has closed on $2.5 million in initial financing and is in talks with partners as it establishes a presence in Rochester.

The initial funding round was led by Clean Energy Ventures, a venture capital firm. LuminateRochester Angel NetworkLaunchNY and Clean Energy Venture Group also participated in the round. 

In September, SunDensity won the Luminate NY competition, an accelerator for optics, photonics, and imaging-enabled technology startups. Chosen as the “Company of the Year,” SunDensity’s winnings come from Empire State Development’s Finger Lakes Forward Upstate Revitalization Initiative.

SunDensity, the developer of Photonic Smart Coating technology that increases solar power output, says it is the first company to work on improving the photonics of solar modules. Its PSC technology can reduce energy consumption and enhance the performance of consumer electronics displays and architectural glass in buildings.

SunDensity expects to use the monies to expand.

“We’re locating our initial pilot facility in the Rochester region, which will begin with lab-scale capabilities and then move into commercial-scale production of our PSC technology to support the needs of our initial clients,” says Nish Sonwalkar, founder and CEO of SunDensity. “We’re also accelerating partnerships with key industry players over the next eight to 12 months.”

Founder Nish Sonwalkar is focused on guiding SunDensity into its next phase.
(Photo credit: Luminate NY)

SunDensity’s Photonic Smart Coating converts unabsorbable blue light into red light that can be converted into electricity. The coating, applied beneath the glass on solar panels, can increase efficiency, enabling a 20 percent increase in power output for even the most efficient solar cells, SunDensity says. Its technology traps and transforms the light through a specific process that enables manufacturers to apply it on tools used in the architectural glass industry as well. 

“As ubiquitous as solar energy is today, the sector has seen incremental improvements over the past two decades. SunDensity’s breakthrough technology brings a critical step-function increase in solar panel efficiency, further accelerating our transition to clean, renewable energy,” says Temple Fennell, co-founder and managing director of Clean Energy Ventures. “We are proud to invest in promising early-stage startups, such as SunDensity, that can be major enablers of the energy transition and have the potential to prevent more than 2.5 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2050.” 

If successful, SunDensity could evolve into a major player as the region and the state further commit to addressing climate change. The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Sonwalkar, former alumni and faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as he guides SunDensity into its next phase. His answers are below.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Were you in talks with investors before winning Luminate NY? What do you think helped the investors make a decision in your favor? 

NISH SONWALKAR: We had applied for and received a National Science Foundation Phase 1 grant, which is essentially peer reviewed by almost five different judges. That gave confidence to investors to look deeper at our technology and business plan. We also did some additional third-party validation of our photonic coating with the PV experts at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Georgia Tech, and those numbers were impressive. Additionally, we performed an extensive customer validation process to make sure we had the right product market fit. We had a lot of interest, with letters of intent, indicating that these prospects were willing to evaluate and work with our technology. As part of this process we also received feedback from major glass companies, which was very encouraging. With our pedigree of research, NSF grant, customer traction and ground-breaking technology, it was a compelling case for investors to make decisions in our favor. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: How do you plan to use the funds? 

SONWALKAR: The new funds will support the expansion of SunDensity on multiple levels. First, I moved into an apartment at the Sibley building to have a home base to oversee the business and the technology development here. We’re locating our initial pilot facility in the Rochester region, which will begin with lab-scale capabilities and then move into commercial-scale production of our PSC technology to support the needs of our initial clients. We’re also accelerating partnerships with key industry players over the next eight to 12 months. We’re working with RIT’s Nano Power Research Institute to conduct coating experiments and solar cell measurements, and the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester on developing theoretical model and coating experiments. We’re also exploring the possibility of working at the Kodak Research Park, with the manufacturing research lab at Rensselaer Polytech Institute, and have a meeting with AIM Photonics to explore opportunities.  

ROCHESTER BEACON: What’s next on SunDensity’s agenda? What would you like to get done in the next 12 months? 

SONWALKAR: We are working with numerous university laboratories in the region, including Binghamton, Cornell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, and the University of Rochester, in order to come up with a manufacturing process and design of the nano-optical coating equipment. We are also looking at other U.S. companies to partner with to speed commercialization and to pilot a manufacturing plan.  

ROCHESTER BEACON: You have decided to move SunDensity’s operations to Rochester. What can the community expect from your company as it grows? 

SONWALKAR: Rochester is the photonics capital of the world and its reputation in optics, photonics, and imaging—along with the Luminate NY accelerator, which provides support and funding for OPI startups—is what attracted us to the area. There are well-trained talent resources that have existed here that can help us scale up the coating manufacturing line, and access to key labs, facilities and other resources. The community should expect us to create a highly successful commercial venture that leads to local job creation and revenue impact, while also helping to develop and promote clean energy resources that are both affordable and good for our environment. Climate technology such as this can help New York, for example, meet its aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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