Author: Richard Burnett and Scott Faris
Publisher: Orlando Sentinel
Date: August 12, 2012
Scott Faris, 47, is chief executive officer of Planar Energy Devices Inc., an Orlando research start-up that developed advanced battery technology and has raised millions in venture capital. He spoke recently with Orlando Sentinel staff writer Richard Burnett.
CFB: How did the national scandal involving Solyndra, the big California solar-panel maker that imploded in the face of low-cost foreign competition, affect companies like Planar?
It had a chilling effect on the entire industry, particularly the appetite to invest in alternative energy technologies. The original idea was that there needed to be a catalyst in the market to make investmenthappen. So the government was willing to share in that risk, financially and politically. But when the risk got so high, the government couldn’t afford it anymore, and investment from the private sector died as well.
CFB: How has it affected Planar’s financing, work force and overall business model?
It has hit us outright; we were frozen. Look at what has happened in the battery industry as a whole: you have a lot of companies in bankruptcy, some have gone away outright. It goes back to two factors when you have competing technologies: Who will find a way produce to scale the right way for customers, and who will have the capital to get it done. Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to a new company is to get a customer who wants a big order. The thing is, they don’t want just a handful; they want something like 20 million units a month. That’s a big gap, and one that can potentially drive small companies like ours out of business.
CFB: So what does Planar do now?
We decided to pursue a different business strategy, to harvest our technology by licensing it through partnerships, to get it into the marketplace. We’re in fairly serious discussions with a couple of companies now, both outside the U.S. We’ve scaled down all our research, development and manufacturing operations; we only have a couple of full-time people now. We’ve become essentially a virtual company, with a group of consultants who work on an as-needed basis to do technology-transfer work. We took a page from the pharmaceutical industry’s playbook, where smaller research firms develop innovations in the lab, then connect to big companies who make the necessary investment to manufacture it. Read more here.