Interview with Marcie Black

August 23, 2010

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

The mission statement on Bandgap Engineering's website says nearly everything you might want to know about what drives its co-founder and CTO, Marcie Black: "Our motivations are many and varied. We want to mitigate the impact of humans on climate change and ease the global political tensions caused by competition for scarce fossil fuels. As parents we are inspired to leave the world a better place for our children and their children. As entrepreneurs we love the thrill of a startup and think our technology represents a very, very good business opportunity. As scientists and engineers we are motivated to tackle difficult and very meaningful technical challenges."

Marcie Black

Dr. Marcie Black is Co-founder and CTO of Bandgap Engineering, which has pioneered the development of highly tunable and inexpensive methods for nano-structuring silicon for application to high efficiency photovoltaic systems and high capacity Li-ion batteries. Marcie has worked in the semiconductor, opto-electronic, and solar energy industries for the past fifteen years. Before joining Bandgap, Marcie was a technical staff member in the applied electromagnetics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory and worked on a variety of nanotechnology and optical systems.
She earned her BSc, Masters and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has published over 30 articles in peer reviewed journals and three book sections and has two patents issued and numerous patents pending.

Marcie Black

Transcript: 

An Interview with Dr. Marcie Black Co-Founder & Chief Technology Officer, Bandgap Engineering

Date: August 23, 2010

NCWIT Entrepreneurial Heroes [intro music]

Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology or NCWIT and with me is Larry Nelson, w3w3.com Internet radio.

Larry Nelson: Yes.

Lucy: And we are very happy to be doing one in a series of interviews with women who have started IT companies and we love this series because there is so much wisdom with these entrepreneurs that everybody can benefit from.

Larry: Yes, it's very exciting and we get a tremendous amount of business leaders, parents, all with different ages of people who tuned in and listen to this and we are very happy because we know that we need a lot of encouragement in this area.

Lucy: Absolutely and very excited about today's interview. We are interviewing an entrepreneur who is helping the world solve our energy problems. We all know energy is a very important topic, very hot topic and the person we are interviewing today is a very impressive one. She has very impressive technical credentials with a PhD from MIT and also post doctoral work at Los Alamos laboratory. So, very, very well credentialed to take on the energy problems of the world. So, just to get right to it. We are interviewing Marcie Black who is the CTO and co-founder of Bandgap Engineering. And we are going to let her tell us a little bit about what the company does but in brief, they pioneered the development of highly tunable and inexpensive methods for nano structuring silicone and they are applying that technology to high efficiency solar cells. So, Marcie, first of all welcome and why don't you tell our listeners what this technology is all about.

Marcie Black: Lucy and Larry, thank you for having me. It is a pleasure to be here. So, Bandgap Engineering is reducing the cost of solar electricity and the reason why we are doing that is there are a lot of trade-offs in producing electricity and by moving to renewable energy source, we can lessen some of those trade-offs. And solar is the only renewable energy source that has the potential of being or dominant energy supply. So, there's a couple of ways to reduce the price of solar electricity so that it is cost competitive with conventional sources. One of the ways is by reducing the cost of processing the semi conductors. But another way is increasing the efficiency of the solar cell and by increasing efficiency means that you can get more power over the same area of the solar cell. So, what Bandgap Engineering is doing is increasing the efficiency of the solar cell while keeping the cost per area constant. And that effectively will bring down the cost of electricity from solar energy making it cost competitive with other conventional energy sources. And as you mentioned the way that we are increasing the efficiency is by nano engineering silicone so that it's a better converter of energy from optical energy to electrical energy.

Lucy: Wow.

Larry: Yeah.

Lucy: Now, see, I just write softwares. I'm pretty impressed.

Larry: No small thing.

Lucy: It is very important and it is a young company, isn't it Marcie?

Marcie: Yeah, we are about three years old.

Lucy: Awesome. So, how did you first get into technology? You obviously love technology and I think our listeners would be very curious to know how you first became interested in it and besides, the nano technology which you are using today, other technology that you see are especially important.

Marcie: Yeah like many engineers. I've emerged from very early on. So, I remember when I was very young, my father who was also an engineer would take me to the basement and we'll build electronic circuits and radios and do all kind of cool, crazy stuff in the basement. But when I got older, I didn't explore. At AT&T Bell Labs and what that was I call that branch of boy scouts and we were able to go into AT&T and basically, play with other toys. So, play with their softwares, computers and play with some of their electronic stuff. And that I really developed a love for understanding how things work and using that knowledge to build something from it. I say that's my first exposure to technology. And as far as what technologies I think are cool, for me what's cool is the applications. So I get very excited when a technology comes out that has the chance of really improving the world. And I think that right now we're at a very critical point in history where there's a lot of technologies that are coming out that will help us live in balance with the world around us. And I find that very exciting. So it's not just renewable energy. But for example, I read about some technologies that can take salt water and turn it into fresh drinking water without using very much electricity to do it. And I find that very exciting. Also a lot of the work with the Smart Grid I find very interesting. So right now it costs a lot more money to produce electricity when all of your neighbors are using electricity, but it doesn't cost very much to produce it in the middle of the night when no one's using it. So a lot of the technologies out there are to help levelize that load, which is good for conventional energy sources but is also good for renewables as well. And there's also a lot of battery technology out there that I find very interesting and has the potential of being storage for the national grid. So I like looking at how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and seeing how this critical time in history is going to unfold to the point that we are burning less coal and living more in harmony with our surroundings. So I find that very exciting.

Lucy: Well and we do too. We just interviewed the CTO of WiTricity, wireless electricity. And that was just fascinating. That whole area is so interesting.

Larry: It sure is. Now Marcie, here you are a "nerd." You've been with some magnificent companies, from Lucent and AT&T and all, and certainly a crossover with Lucy's background also. But why are you an entrepreneur and what is it about you that makes this entrepreneur tick?

Marcie: I never woke up and said, "I think I want to be an entrepreneur." For me it was more about how to best get technology into the marketplace. And so I worked in government labs, and academia, and big industry. And they all have a piece in the puzzle. But I think if you are really driven by taking an idea, and making a product out of it, and getting it into the consumers' hands, I think the fastest way to do that is in a small company. And so for me that's part of what makes me interested in being an entrepreneur. I also really enjoy in a small company the team atmosphere. And how everyone is working together to make the company move foreword and helping each other just to make it work. I find that very motivating in doing a small company.

Lucy: Well we almost have to work together.

Larry: Yes, you bet...

Marcie: Right, right. Otherwise the company won't succeed.

Lucy: Absolutely. It is true. We were just reading... I forget where it was that a lot of the smaller companies now are where real innovation is going on. The adaptation of ideas and so forth, that's where a lot of the job creation is right now as well. So it is an interesting time in start-ups. So along the way you mentioned that you had had this time with Lucent and time with Bell Labs where you could be in the labs and tinker with things. And that your father encouraged you from an early age. Who else has encouraged you in this path? Being a technologist, of taking risks, and being an entrepreneur?

Marcie: That's a good question. I felt very fortunate to have had so many people really help me throughout my career at different times. So when I was young I mentioned my father introduced me to the love of science and engineering. And later on a lot of my professors really taught me how to think critically and understand technological problems. And into my Ph.D. my advisor was Professor Millie Dresselhaus, and she taught me. She's a very hard worker. She works all the time. And that taught me the value of a strong work ethic. And throughout my career there have been other people. Like now there are quite a few people including my board members and other mentors that help me on how to learn the new set of skills that you need to know when you're starting a business. So I can't really pin down one person. There's been a whole bunch of people that have been very nice to help me out throughout they years.

Larry: You've done lots of very interesting things, and I would like to ask the question: What is the toughest thing that you've had to do during your career?

Lucy: [laughs] There's been a lot of things that have been tough throughout my career, but I have to say the most difficult is probably starting Bandgap, because there are so many aspects that have to come together in order to make a company successful. So, when you're doing research, you have to get the technology right, and the engineering right. But, in a small company, you also have to get the IP right, and the culture right, and set up a good infrastructure in the company. There are million different things to think about, that all have to come into play in order for the company to be successful. So I find that both challenging and rewarding at the same time, but it's definitely the most challenging part of my career so far.

Lucy: I have a follow up question to that. We don't really interview many cheap technology officers; we will interview founders or CEOs. So, our listeners may want to know, what is the role of a CTO in a startup company? How would you describe what you do in Bandgap?

Marcie: I think it's funny because I've been talking to a lot of my other CTO founder friends, and what we've decided is that the title really doesn't mean much. It basically means you do what needs to be done to make the company successful. So, different people end up doing very different jobs with the same title. So, some people are in the labs, working side-by-side with their people, and other people are filing patents and writing grants. And other people are doing all of the above. So, I think it depends on the company and what the company needs, as well as what the CTO founder wants to do.

Larry: Good point.

Lucy: Great answer. I think that the role of CTO is pretty broad in a lot of companies. And I think it's really good advice hidden in what you just said: don't get hung up on the title. When you're in a startup company, everybody's there to row the boat and it doesn't really matter what they're doing, as long as the boat's moving forward. If you were talking to a young person about being an entrepreneur, what other advice would you give them?

Marcie: I wouldn't advise people specifically to be an entrepreneur, even though I love it. What I'd advise them to do is, really figure out what drives them. And I think, don't take this the wrong way, but if what drives them is making money or having proceeds, it's probably not the best route for them. [laughter] But, if what drives them is, for example, bringing technology to the market and trying to make the world a better place through their technology, then I would advise them to become entrepreneurs. Once they decide to become an entrepreneur, my biggest advice is to follow your passion and do what you enjoy and what you really believe in. Because if you believe in something and you work hard at it, you're much more likely to be successful.

Lucy: So, let me rephrase the question just a little bit, then, and ask you: how would you interest a young person in pursuing technology today? What would you say to them that might hook them to get that interest?

Marcie: Well I did technology simply because it was fun.

Lucy: Yeah. [laughter]

Marcie: But then, as you know, I worked on it more, I got good at it and then it made sense for me that I stay in technology. So, I guess I would probably invite them to a lab and play in lab with them, so they could see how much fun it was.

Lucy: It is a great deal of fun. I'll come! [laughter]

Larry: There you go. I'm there.

Lucy: I'm there.

Larry: What are some of the characteristics that have given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?

Marcie: That's a good one. I've noticed that all the successful entrepreneurs I know are very optimistic, and I am definitely optimistic, as well. But you can't be blindly optimistic; you have to be what I call "realistic optimist". You can't have your blinders on, but you do have to be able to see a way that the company can be successful, and arrange it so all the parts fall into place, so that task remains clear and you can move forward down that path. So I say optimism. Also persistence and work ethic are also very important and seem to be consistent among the successful entrepreneurs that I've met.

Larry: Marcie, thank you very much for that. I agree 100 percent.

Marcie: Are you optimistic and working hard?

Larry: You got it.

Lucy: Larry's an entrepreneur too. Many times over, we're both insane about entrepreneurship. So, we totally get it.

Larry: Well, I only heard the word insane, but that's OK.

Lucy: That's OK too. So it is hard work to be an entrepreneur and you do need to have passion and you need to be motivated, I think, truly by bringing innovation out into the world. And yet entrepreneurs do have personal lives and struggle sometimes to bring balance between the professional and the personal lives. What do you do to attend to this issue?

Marcie: It's a tough one. I think what allows me to be able to do both, is that I really enjoy both my jobs. When I say both my jobs, my other job is I'm a mom. I have two wonderful children. And so I go to work and I love my job. And then I come home and I'm with my kids and I really love being their mom as well. And so, that makes it a lot easier and allows me to work many more hours because it reenergizes me.

Lucy: That's exactly right, I feel. I mean I honestly think that where I saw young parents who were struggling a lot between, with this balance issue, it was when work had become tedious.

Larry: Right.

Lucy: And they had to give up a lot. They had to give up being with their children for a job that they didn't find fulfilling. And so this notion that you need to be in love with both of them, I think is very sage wisdom.

Larry: Yes. We love all five of our children too.

Marcie: Yeah. And I guess I feel fortunate that I've managed to get a job that I really love.

Larry: That's great.

Lucy: I somehow think that you're always going to have jobs you really love.

Larry: I think so too.

Lucy: I think so too.

Larry: Now, you've already achieved a great deal. And I realize your company today is only three years old. But what's next for you?

Marcie: I won't be happy with what I've achieved until our cells have replaced the coal plant. So, I guess the first answer to that is to build Bandgap up to the point that we're producing a significant amount of solar energy that is making an impact on our electricity production. And it's not just building a big company. I want to build a company that obviously makes money and impacts the world. But also, at the same time, I'm hoping to build a culture where people can grow professionally at the company. Where they can come and contribute, but also improve themselves as well. So when I do that, then I'll feel like I've had a successful career. And then probably the next thing that I would accomplish is traveling all over the world.

Larry: Ah-ha.

Lucy: Ah. Where do you want to go?

Marcie: Oh. I would love to go to Africa. And like Egypt and yeah, many places actually. I very much enjoy the music of Africa and would love to go visit it.

Lucy: Wow. I've never been there. Plus I know you're in Boulder, Colorado. We have a coal plant that you could replace.

Larry: Yes. That's right.

Lucy: And we could turn it into a shopping mall.

Marcie: That would be great.

Lucy: It's rather unsightly.

Larry: It's not Africa here but it is Boulder, so maybe we could get you here.

Lucy: We'll introduce you and maybe you could talk them out of their coal plant. That would be awesome.

Larry: Yeah.

Lucy: Thank you so much for talking to us Marcie. And you have a great company with a great mission and a great background. And we didn't even get into your background around your authorship and journals and patents. You're truly a technical expert in this area and I know your company's going to succeed. So, thank you so much for talking to us.

Marcie: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Larry: Yes. And we're going to follow up on you, so be careful.

Lucy: Oh, and you have to remind people where they're going to find this.

Larry: Oh yes. You can also listen to this interview 24/7 at w3w3 dot com and the NCWIT channel. And you can download it as a podcast. We'll make sure we have it on the blog. And Marcy, thank you so much.

Lucy: Thanks Marcie.

Marcie: Thank you. [music]