This Japanese woman can reduce the price of solar energy around the world
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Miho Koike in her office in Tohoku University / Photocredit: Tech in Asia

As CEO of Material Concept, she steers the company towards a big breakout in the field

Tech in Asia

Solar cell makers in China, Taiwan, and Europe have bombarded Miho Koike with product orders. Koike is the CEO of Material Concept, a small solar power development company that is changing the way the world makes solar panels. Nestled away in a Tohoku University research and business center, the company is so hidden and focused on product it does not have a working website. Instead, it depends on Tohoku University web space to broadcast news. Don’t worry – this is not a fly-by-night Kickstarter campaign. The product is real, and it is selling.

Traditionally, manufacturers use a gold paste to affix solar cells to the electrodes on solar batteries and panels. Gold, being a valuable commodity, ends up accounting for almost 25 percent of all production costs. Junichi Koike (no relation) developed an alternative copper paste that Miho says is just 1/100th of the cost.

Though the breakthrough was twenty years in the making, with other researchers pursuing the same goal, the real trick that Junichi pulled off is creating a slim barrier to prevent the copper from being absorbed into the silicon used in solar panels. The cost benefits of copper had been known but the material caused silicon to degrade, making it a risky alternative.

This is welcome news to overseas solar companies. Material Concept receives a lot of attention from Europe because the European Union announced a switch over to the bronze standard by 2018. Miho mentions that they are exploring tie-ups with Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. The talks must be going well because she is looking for new employees who can also speak Chinese.

Although Japan’s government made a noisy but faltering push for more solar power, the reality is that Material Concept’s clients are mostly outside of Japan. “In Japan only three major companies – Sharp, Kyocera, and Mitsubishi – are producing these solar cells,” she says.

A CEO that almost never was

Junichi might have cracked the scientific code but Miho is the engine pushing the company forward. That said, she nearly missed the opportunity. For ten years she lived in the US, studying and working. Though she expected to live there for the rest of her life, family considerations led her to return to Japan. At the time of her decision she had just received a notice that her application for a permanent visa was approved.

Back in Japan, she experienced reverse culture shock. “I didn’t want to leave my home. That lasted for half a year,” she recalls. Soon enough, she picked herself up and worked in a steady government job for the next 14 years. In that role, she would sometimes interact with businesses that were launching out of universities. When the opportunity came, in 2011, to coordinate business planning and development for startups trying to launch out of top-ranked Tokyo University, she took it.

Feeling a strong desire to help the disaster-ravaged Tohoku area of Japan, she switched her role when the opportunity to lead Material Concept arose in 2013. Now she’s singularly focused on one company – Material Concept. With a deep roster of domestic and international contacts, Miho is steering a company that could be poised for a big breakout.

Local investors agree. Earlier this year, it received series A funding of approximately US$6 million from major names like Daiwa Securities and the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan.

Photocredit: Tech in Asia.

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.

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