“Alexa, please dim the sun.”
There’s a quiet revolution happening in electrochromic (EC) 2.0 tech, sponsored by a new generation of hackers and hustlers (H&H’s). These are founders armed with (novel) advanced materials, stretching the Outer Reaches of the Possible on product form, function and economy. They’ve observed Ring and August and Nest and they think about EC products through the prism of the now proverbial smart home/Internet of Things. Their bookmarks are meme-ish and only 1 or 2 syllables: Tile, Sonos, WeMo, Hue, drop, whistle, Mimo, flic, and Atmo. These H&H’s are seduced by beautiful industrial design and inspired by aesthetes like Yves Behar and Tony Fadell. Along with beauty, they think about function and practicality and frictionless adoption (“How do we make this as easy as flic?!?!”). When you’re hanging out at Target’s transparent, acrylic IoT showcase or Burning Man’s Ideate Camp or at some Shamanic retreat for CEO’s, you might hear variations on these themes from the EC 2.0 H&H’s:
- Prototyping design versus design for manufacturing (DFM)
- Staving off hardware commoditization
- Point solutions (“nobody wants just another Hub”)
- Serotonin hits, positive interactions, consumer utility (“we have to make their lives better”)
- Opportunities for network effects
- Multi-pronged distribution
- The new mode of OEM partnerships
Some investors can see the butterfly in the chrysalis. The FOMO is palpable.
For ‘newbies’, plain jane EC tech changes the tint state of transparent surfaces by applying voltage. You can change the visible light transmission streaming through the window. FOR REALZ. Just like you turn the volume up and down on your iPod. Wikipedia of course misses a lot, but these Wiki primers on the tech and on current practical devices will give you enough working language. EC is like those sunglasses, but for windows and smarter (and not photochromic). There’s quite a patent lineage and the Innovation Tree deserves a Plot.ly or Tableau treatment. From Diesbach’s Prussian Blue discovery in 1704, to S.K. Deb’s demonstrated electrochromic coloration in tungsten trioxide thin films in 1969, to Kruglikov’s demonstrated flexible and wire-free EC (solar powered) in 2016. Man, hardware innovation takes forever.
But that’s why this is a moment, a rare moment even in a period of accelerated evolution. There are a lot of windows. Consumers would love to get rid of their blinds and shades. They’d love to command Alexa or Siri or another AI to dim the windows on-demand. Humans don’t want to be separated from nature. Like plants, we want views and light. But we don’t want uncomfortable solar heat and glare. We know this so intuitively, so deeply, that we just nod our heads when science substantiates our suspicions: natural light helps students learn and patients heal, and light pollution is bad for us.
A new class of EC 2.0 entrepreneurs, mostly young physicists and chemists, see the world’s windows as an especially large canvass for their EC dreams. They wax cosmic:
- “If we retrofitted just 3% of the existing windows in the U.S., we’d have a $40 Billion business.”
- “We’re addressing the 19.5 billion square feet of installed glass in the U.S.”
To some EC 1.0 investors, electrochromism has seemed like a vast, inescapable money pit. A gigantic, ravenous maw, hungrily devouring dollars: the CAPEX dollars are “yuge” (Donald Trump voice), the OPEX (driven by a bill of materials that’s equally) “yuge”, the product form factor (new windows or “insulated glass units”, not EC spray or EC film/layers, etc.) full of friction. The total installed amount of EC globally (in buildings) might be 700,000 square feet, and about 99% of that is in new construction. It’s a trickle. But the EC 1.0 companies created AEC (architect, engineer, contractor) market awareness, completed invaluable pilot projects, and showed more than a glimmer of what was possible. Students of Joseph Schumpeter know that we needed them.
Silicon Valley is about adaptation and continuous learning. The EC 2.0 category will yield 1 or maybe 2 globally significant companies. The EC 2.0 H&H’s who really know what’s what are thinking about their products along these 10 design dimensions:
- Cost — Installed costs between $15 — $30/square foot. This means that a 3' x 5' window (15 square feet) will cost between $225 — $450. It’s almost an impulse buy. Maybe it is. And maybe I can just do one window, just to start.
- Cost — In order to do #1, you have to design an EC solution that does not require wiring and cabling. Simple. As. That. It has to be solar-powered and must use a small amount of power. We’re talking 40–80 milliwatts per square meter. Something small. With a lithium polymer battery about 1/5th the size of an iPhone 6 battery.
- Cost — In order to do #1, you have to have an OPEX of $10/square foot or less. These production unit economics will make hummingbirds perform synchronized sky ballet and enable investors to return their funds in a single enlightened shot.
- Cost — It needs to be a retrofit solution. Replacing existing insulated glass units with new ones is pricey. The labor of taking that window in and out is a big deal. Can we work with what we’ve got?
- Ease — The installation must be near-frictionless to fulfill The Big Dream of transforming every ‘static’ window into a ‘dynamic’ window.
- Serotonin Hit — Consumers have to experience the change in real-time. This means very fast switching times (not 20 minutes, more like 20 seconds). They need to experience the near-instantaneous result of pressing a button.
- Beauty — The product has to be beautiful. (Consumers don’t buy Nest because it saves energy; they buy it because it is beautiful and they can interact with it and show it off to their friends).
- Function — The solution has to integrate with the smart home hub. This part isn’t rocket science, but requires a thoughtful approach.
- Function — Even though the consumer responds to dialing up-and-down the visible light transmission (because that’s what we can see), the Whole Product should address the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum.
- Cost — The channel and installer must realize very tangible value.
Who are the unusual suspects?
So who is doing the really creative work in EC 2.0 and directly related fields?
Delia Milliron is working on a new low-temperature process for coating EC on plastic (flexible EC device). Her team uses about 4 volts to control IR and VLT. Major paper in Nature Materials this month. Big international collaboration: the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and CNRS in France, Ikerbasque in Spain, and researchers at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences.
Mircea Dinca, Khaled Al-Kaabi and Casey Wade appear to be onto something, getting fast switching times from metal-organic frameworks. They can do nearly black, which is awesome.
Toby Sachs-Quintana, David Abram and Mike McGehee may have put their EC retrofit solution, NexTint, on ice, but a lot of the animating ideas are terrific. McGehee and his labmates are now working on a successor tech, a way of electroplating metals — and they have a trick for electrifying metals uniformly over a large area.
Pavel Zaikin, Nikita Kruglikov, Evgeniy Vasiliev, and Sergey Borisov have come up with something “hella-cool”, as they say in Oakland — though they aren’t talking a lot about it yet (Stealth Mode). Full disclosure: This author is working with them and demonstrates a clear ‘positivity bias’ for low cost, flexible EC.
Miles Barr is absorbing UV and IR, while allowing transmission of the visible parts of the spectrum to create “truly transparent solar” at Ubiquitous Energy. It’s not clear what UE’s power production is right now, and when it can be used in a window, but it’s a beautiful idea and a shining example of “innovation at the intersection of disciplines”, which is what MIT is all about.
Ksenia Vinogradova may have a great intuitive sense of the software needed for EC 2.0. She’s focused on making existing blinds smarter, not replacing them with EC, but EC entrepreneurs are wise to look at what she’s doing and how she’s doing it.
As a trend, there’s a disproportionate amount of EC 2.0 work at University of Texas, CalTech, Stanford, MIT, Princeton and Novosibirsk State University. Industry continues to starve R&D budgets while doing share buybacks to puff stock prices. ARPA-E and Horizon 2020 are funding high-quality work for fundamental research. About 20 venture investors have dipped their toes into the sector for the EC 1.0 companies, but the EC 2.0 companies are now approaching the springboard. EC 2.0 companies will be faster-to-market, much lower cost, focused on mass markets and consumers, and connected. A whole new generation of hackers and hustlers.
Miles Barr and Nikita Kruglikov won’t make cameos on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” this season, but you just might see them three years from now. You can almost hear Erlich Bachman, his hands stymied by the severe carpal tunnel syndrome that left him unable to code, shouting that over-confident, hoarse, stentorian command: “Alexa, dim the goddamned sun.”
Contact: If you’re interested in EC 2.0 tech, feel free to e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts, ideas or questions.