Click here for FREE registration or Login to your account:

Network Locations



Whitfield Solar is a spin-out company from the University of Reading. it is developing solar photovoltaic concentrators aimed at generating clean renewable energy from sunlight.

That sounds jolly good, but driving to Reading on a grey December morning, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for solar power.

Fortunately, when I get to the Whitfield Solar offices CEO Dr Clive Weatherby has enough enthusiasm for both of us.

“Our principal activity is the generation of cleanenergy at a lower cost than is currently possible,” Dr Weatherby explains. “Solar cells have been developed over many years, though they have always been expensive. We aim to reduce the expense by concentrating the sunlight on to less of the silicon. If you can use a low-cost focusing element – either a lens or a mirror – and concentrate the sun on to a very small area of the silicon involved then you can save a very significant amount in materials.

“Then you have a choice to make. Either you can make the solar panels vastly more effective – the current record for a solar concentrator is about 40% efficient as opposed to conventional solar systems, which are in the 15-17% efficiency range – or you can make them as effective but much cheaper. Our system is designed to be as efficient as a flat panel system, but cost half as much.”

So far, so straightforward. But surely if it is as simple as that then everyone would be doing it? “The difficulty comes with achieving it! You need a solar cell that can deal with the high current that is generated. You have to modify the amount of metal in the cell in order get the current out of the cell effectively, and you need work on getting the heat out of the cell, because photovoltaic cells work more efficiently at lower temperatures. And because ours is a focusing device it has to be able to point directly at the sun all the time.”

Dr Weatherby and his team are obviously pretty comfortable with the technical challenges their system involves (however off-putting they seem to me) but how have they dealt with the commercial problems?

Has it been problematic moving from a theoretical to a commercial world? “It has been less difficult for us than it might have been, because our research focused on reducing cost rather than on increasing efficiency, and cost is obviously one of the main commercial drivers. “One of the other issues with moving to mass production from a university prototype is manufacturing of course, and that’s a stage at which most companies need to find a partner. Whitfield Solar is no exception.

“We’re in discussion with potential manufacturing partners now but we are trying to find partners that can contribute to some of the design aspects of the mass production; because there was a very big difference between the original prototype and the current manufacturing prototype; and there’s a big difference again between our pre-production prototype and the value-engineered low-cost manufactured product we want to produce –  we need help bridging that gap.”

Has being involved with their local Enterprise Hub helped? “Yes, though not really with the manufacturing!  The Hub is ideal as a place to operate from, partly because it’s on the University campus, but more especially because we can rent rooms, which are fully serviced: the fact that there’s no tie-in is particularly useful – we’ve already moved within the Hub once and added another two offices to this particular one.

“We’ve been helped with advice too: on Intellectual Property matters where we were put in touch with an expert who gave us some very good advice early – we’ve lodged patents now, though there is still some work to do. We\'ve had help in terms of putting us in touch with advisors; we are supported by the Finance South East Merlin Mentoring programme through which we have a mentor who comes in once a month and that’s been useful for independent discussions.”

Clive is unusual in that he has a commercial background as well as an academic one: after his PhD in solar concentrators was complete he left university to work as Head of Technology for London-based solar power company Solar Century. During his time at Solar Century the company expanded ten-fold.

So he has access to a lot of direct commercial experience, and I wonder if, given that, the Hub’s advice wasn’t rather redundant? “No; it’s useful sometimes to take a step back and look at something from an outsiders’ perspective. Our Hub Director, Susan Elliott, was very careful to choose a mentor for us who had experience in the fields that we were operating in; so our mentor has experience in large scale manufacturing, in South Africa, and growing SMEs from a very small base. That specific experience has undoubtedly been useful; in fact it’s been so successful that we’ve extended the scheme for a while longer.

“For me as CEO it’s very helpful to have that independent thinking. We are currently being financed by three venture capitalists in effect, and one beneficial side effect of that is that we have a very rounded and experienced Board.”

What lessons have they learned after two years? “It’s certainly true that the company hasn’t developed quite as we pictured it: there’s been an enormous amount of work in terms of raising funding which has had the effect of slowing down the technical development. You have to set aside perhaps six months of time for the CEO to go after funding.

“You need to get to a critical mass; to get enough talented people around you that you can keep the technical process going alongside the business processes. That’s the secret – don’t ask for too little money when you are raising finance – go for a bigger structure because there is so much time taken out of the equation by raising finance and doing all these other things that you need those extra people around you.

“Make sure you use all the services at your disposal within the Hub Network. Get help and funding wherever possible and stay with the Hub Network for the flexibility until you have found your feet.”

And is the future bright for Whitfield Solar? “We have to see the product to market and get it to a manufacturing stage in two or three countries; and achieve large-scale deployment of the systems, which will disrupt conventional solar module infrastructure and conventional fossil fuel energy generation. That will only happen if we can get prices down to the level where the market becomes self-supporting and generates energy at close to fossil fuel energy prices. So that’s our main aim.”


Published: 06th February 2006

High Growth Business Coaching Website

Design Clarity