Oddly it seems that you can’t convince people of the rule that technology-push is never as promising as market-pull. We have to add another example to the long litany of companies that have crashed against the rocks of this simple rule: Konarka—a developer of thin-film solar panels—filed bankruptcy last week under chapter 7 of the Federal bankruptcy laws.
Konarka was launched with great fanfare back in 2001 with Nobel Prize winner Dr. Alan Heeger as one of its founders and despite never quite getting a product to market by 2007 had managed to raise over US $100 million.
It appears that the political press is already making hay with this announcement dubbing the Massachusetts-based Konarka “Romney’s Solyndra” based on the fact that when Mitt Romney was governor, Massachusetts lent $1.5 million to Konarka.
Beyond the issue of political gamesmanship, the area of nanotech in alternative energy solutions remains fertile soil for attracting investors and delivering little in terms of returns.
When you have Nobel Laureates in economics saying that the reason solar power is not our main energy source is because of some conspiracy among oil producers, there are plenty of excuses for pursuing technologies that at present just don’t measure up to the fossil fuel variety.
The lesson to be learned from the cautionary tale of Konarka should not be that investments in new energy sources should be avoided, but instead that we may need an entirely new apparatus for developing emerging technologies. Unfortunately before such a new method is adopted, it seems that other companies will likely follow Konarka into bankruptcy while they beguile investors with stories of their remarkable technologies—which nobody seems to want to buy.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.