Sunshine beamed down as Ambient Photonics officials joined with Mayor Donna Lind (second from left) and State Senator John Laird (center) for the company’s ceremonial groundbreaking on Nov. 3. — Drew Penner/Press Banner

A startup aiming to conquer the world with new technology that delivers a steady stream of solar power—even in even low light situations—has selected a former Fox Factory manufacturing plant in Scotts Valley as the site of its first production line.

In a ceremony on Nov. 3, Ambient Photonics CEO Bates Marshall said he was thrilled to reveal details about what would go into the 43,000-square-foot facility, near where he grew up in Santa Cruz.

“I’m a local boy,” he told the crowd gathered in parking lot of the facility for the groundbreaking ceremony. “It was a dream to put a factory right here in my hometown—or at least very close by.”

After 10 years in the semiconductor industry and two decades working in solar, Marshall said he hopes to apply his learnings to the team rolling out solar cells meant for a world of interconnected devices.

He called their product a “greener, cleaner energy source,” and suggested the 100 new jobs they’re bringing to town will reduce pollution by allowing area residents to avoid a commute over the hill to Silicon Valley.

The company aims to replace “dirty” batteries with photovoltaic (PV) cells in everything from remote controls to digital sensors and doorbells.

“Our ambition is to power the connected world with our novel PV cell,” he said. “This is kind of a great leap forward from the solar cells which powered calculators in the 1970s.”

The company is flush with $48.5 million from a Series A funding round.

Their backers include I Squared Capital, Future Shape, Ecosystem Integrity Fund and Climate Pledge Fund. They’ve received debt financing from Trinity Capital and Silicon Valley Bank and have been working for months to map out how to get up and running as soon as possible.

Company officials say they’d like to have products on shelves by Christmas 2023.

“I don’t need to tout the many benefits and wonders of Scotts Valley,” Marshall said. “It’s all around us. It’s a beautiful, beautiful day—as you all can see. We’re surrounded by this incredible natural beauty. It’s just a magical place to be.”

But the community has another attribute founders said they found particularly valuable.

“Santa Cruz, the Scotts Valley area—really the whole county—is filled with amazingly talented people, many of whom have been driving over the hill for decades, powering the innovations in Silicon Valley,” he said. “When it’s at full capacity utilization it will produce about 50 million small solar cells a year—which is about one every two seconds. So, it is a state-of-the-art, fully automated factory, built using some of the best equipment in the world.”

Scotts Valley Mayor Donna Lind and State Senator John Laird were among the attendees on Nov. 3. Lind said it was a positive sign seeing the company select Scotts Valley as a critical anchor for its global supply chain network.

“They’re the top of the industry—the only one in the world doing this,” she said. 

City staff has been pitching the business on the benefits of a local production hub for over a year, according to Lind.

“They’re doing work that is world-renowned,” she said. “And they’re going to be talking from Scotts Valley.”

She’s hoping it will help take a bite out of Scotts Valley’s transportation issues, too.

“We have so many commuters now that fill up all the side streets,” she said. “Getting some of these industries to stay here, and providing the economic support to our community with the jobs—and all of it—is huge.”

In an interview with the Press Banner, Bates said the reason their technology is so effective indoors is that it doesn’t just capture the sun’s rays.

“Our claim to fame is we’re agnostic with respect to the light source,” he said. “The photons that strike the surface of our solar cell can come from an LED light, or a compact fluorescent light, or an incandescent light—or the sun. Doesn’t matter.”

The innovations emerged from research at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, in the Boston area.

Kethinni Chittibabu, chief technical officer, remembers that time well. The materials scientist described how, in seeking to improve our ability to put light to work, the team turned to plants.

“They harvest the light into an energy molecule,” the materials scientist said. “And that energy molecule is converted into sugar. That’s what we consume.”

But plants only manage to harness 1% of the energy, Chittibabu points out.

“Most of the light is wasted,” he said, and yet, “With the low performance the plants are able to produce enough food for everyone in the world.”

Chittibabu believed they could do better than that.

In the end, they’d developed a product that captures 10 times more light than plants can.

“We are producing in a very environmentally-friendly way,” he said. “It’s really high-performing.”

And unlike outdoor solar, which faces stiff competition from Chinese products offered at a low price point, Ambient is trying to flex its first-mover advantage for indoor.

“China doesn’t have this technology,” Chittibabu said.

Glenn Gengel, the chief operating officer, said he’d been working at Sage Glass in Minnesota when he was headhunted by Bates.

Gengel’s team takes the ideas from Chittibabu’s team and figures out how to make it all happen.

“We turn it into machines, and wires, and programs, and floorspace and specifications,” he said. “We’ve got $25 million of equipment on order to make the solar cells here. It’s been quite a process to get to that point.”

Unlike Chittibabu, who will be based in Boston, Gengel found an apartment in Scotts Valley—marking his return to California after leaving in 2009.

“I was living in Hollister-Morgan Hill,” he said. “I came to the realization late I should have been in Scotts Valley…somewhere between Scotts Valley and Ben Lomond.”

As a business-friendly city, he expects Scotts Valley will provide the perfect climate for a successful global operation.

“The City is pro-business,” he said. “Let’s just say other places are more entitled and don’t have the same view.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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