A Brainport scale-up story on sustainable energy

Gerard de Leede



About Gerard,

Brainport impact builder and CTO at Solarge

Gerard de Leede is CTO and co-founder of composite solar panel developer and manufacturer Solarge. Gerard is also Professor of Practice at the Jheronimus Academy for Data Science (TU/Eindhoven part) in Smart Energy. Gerard has started 3 solar companies in the past 12 years and was CTO at Heijmans during the period 2014-2017. During that period the foundations were laid for Solarge, by building a solid partnership with plastics multinational SABIC.

How is Solarge creating value to society?

The transition to a solar-powered economy is necessary and urgent. However, present generation solar modules still have a number of drawbacks. Solarge has succeeded in realising a giant leap forward by developing fully circular ultra-low carbon solar modules. The carbon footprint is 80% better than conventional modules and 50% lower weight. This also means that our panels can be applied to nearly any roof: 250 km2 extra rooftop available for solar in the Netherlands alone. This solar surface can generate as much power as from current gas production from the province of Groningen. The modules can be be made of biobased polymers or recycled polymers and are designed for easy disassembly and recycling at end of life.

What makes Brainport unique to become the deep-tech sustainability capital of the world?

The Brainport region has a set of specialised competences that can be combined into unique sustainable solutions. Look for example what is needed for the energy transition. It requires 1) solar and wind energy, 2) storage and conversion, 3) energy infrastructure and 4) intelligence (trading platforms, energy management systems). The region houses the knowledge and competences for all of this: world-class new thin-film solar technologies, world-class chemical technologies for new materials at arm's length (Brightlands) as well as intelligent hardware and software development (High Tech Campus and Eindhoven University).

How can Brainport make an impact as a deep-tech sustainability capital?

The key to make the impact is to join forces. I suggest to line up companies and R&D activities by defining strategic directions to work on in order to become world-class. Focus on scalability (exponential) and available skills in the ecosystem. When it relates to the energy transition defining strategic directions could look like defining product developments that have very high potential to become the next generation since their cost reduction and improved performance potential is really high. But make sure the market readiness potential is not too far in the future. For example, in solar module manufacturing, thin film technologies in combination with existing silicon cell technology will become more and more mainstream. Also for batteries such technologies will cause breakthroughs. Scalu-up companies must be able to recognize such trends, pick out the best ones available, and know how to turn them into succesful products. You should be aware that ’if you want to go fast, go alone-  If you want to go far, go together- thus, make the right choice on the various trajectories in your development as a company.  

How will Brainport benefit from becoming the deep-tech sustainability capital of the world?

Building new innovative impactful companies that become world-leading will have a positive impact in several ways. These companies propel R&D budgets, resulting in more IP and the creation of jobs with high added value. As the core business they provide is directly linked to creating societal value, it will also attract investors and talented people to the region.

How do you experience your role as a scale-up in the sustainable transition of the region?

At this moment there is not yet enough alignment and visibility of the common goals. Eg it is not yet seen that the energy transition is in fact a material transition. Look at cars as an example: metal parts are being placed by lighter polymers, thus saving energy consumption needed for the production process itself, as well as the energy needed to drive the car from A to B. Also financing has been a tremendous job. Because we have recently managed to attract investors – a vision document on this topic is in preparation. Let’s share our lessons learned with each other!

How has collaboration with organisations in the region helped Solarge in the first phases of developing low-carbon, fully recyclable solar panels?

Some founders had a big amount of contacts in the eco-systems, so successful ‘technology’- shopping to speed-up development has been used. Solliance, SABIC and Heijmans have played a big role in defining respectively new solar technologies, new polymeric materials and building industry applications and demands. Some smaller less well known equipment manufacturers in the region have played a role in quick prototyping and testing of automated, large scale manufacturability.  

Because of these collaborations we can now proclaim that the age of Fully Circular Ultra Low Carbon Solar Modules has begun!

Any tips for other scale-up companies in the region?

Make sure you know where to find the best possible technologies that you need, don’t re-invent the wheel yourselves.

Question and challenge orthodoxies.

Create and use your network.

Keep on validating the proposition you are going to offer the market and be aware some developments in technology or society may go fast, demanding you to adapt your directions.

Find investors that can support you by not only bringing in finances, but also network, reflecting on your progress, know-how or market entries. Keep them well informed and connected. Know the rules of the startup and scaleup financing.

Think big, think about scalability from the start.