Accelerating photovoltaic R&D via joint collaboration

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To sustain growth, the solar cell industry needs further solar cell and module efficiency increases combined with decreased manufacturing costs. 

This continued need for innovation to cope with these cost and performance challenges calls for advanced R&D exploring new materials and processes. Also, more and more technological choices have to be investigated in order to meet the desired goals. Consequently, R&D budgets are expected to increase.

However, the business risk of putting a lot of R&D effort into a certain new technology direction becomes bigger. In today’s rapidly involving photovoltaics business environment, it is important to make the correct R&D choices. 

To reduce this innovation risk and to explore a broader range of options in a cost-effective way, the cost of advanced R&D developments could be shared between a number of companies in so-called joint collaboration programmes. 

Imec, as an independent research centre, has successfully started a joint research program, Imec’s Industrial Affiliation Program (IIAP), in the field of advanced wafer-based Si photovoltaics. The content of the joint research programme is defined and steered by imec. Obviously, this is done in a way that the research is in line with the commonly understood technology roadmaps and is actually tackling problems which are up to two generations ahead of technologies presently in production. 

Within the framework of the IIAP, PV manufacturers on the one hand, and material and equipment suppliers on the other, are brought together at Imec’s facilities. In this way an ecosystem or network of companies aligned along the same developments is created, accelerating the creation of new Si-PV technology solutions and intellectual property. 

The PV manufacturing partners delegate researchers to imec’s facilities and these researchers participate actively in Imec’s research team and contribute to the programme. The material and equipment suppliers contribute to the programme by providing innovative materials and equipment with which or on which new PV processes are being jointly developed in dedicated projects. 

The results realised within the framework of the programme become jointly owned by the programme partners. PV manufacturers joining the IIAP pay only a portion of the full programme cost, but get access to all programme results via co-ownership or via non-exclusive licences, while equipment and materials suppliers only get access to results related to their particular material or processing tool.

Most PV manufacturing companies are not used to working together with other PV companies and are certainly not used to sharing innovations and new intellectual property. They fear losing competitive advantage because competitors will have access to the same new developments. 

However, it should be clear that the partners are not bringing their own IP or own background into the IIAP. The joint programme provides new technology solutions which complement the existing background IP of the partners. And because this new R&D content is sufficiently advanced (‘pre-competitive’), the participating companies maintain their competitive advantage and develop a unique IP fingerprint consisting of their own proprietary IP and a portion of new shared programme IP.

An advantage of sharing the same advanced R&D results amongst several PV manufacturers is that together you have more leverage on equipment and material suppliers.

If for example the new technology solution that was developed requires significant changes in equipment, then equipment suppliers will be more willing to invest in new equipment development if they can sell that equipment to a whole set of companies instead of to one. In this way companies can rapidly get a whole new value chain going instead of being a lonely player having to take care of setting up the whole value chain by themselves. This is an often underestimated but business-wise important advantage of joint R&D collaborations.

To reduce this innovation risk and to explore a broader range of options in a cost effective way, the cost of advanced R&D developments could be shared between a number of companies in so-called joint collaboration programs.
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