Renewable energy start-up Sun Catalytix' history, so far, is a good example of early-stage VCs doing their job and scientists doing theirs.

MIT Professor Daniel Nocera had a discovery that, according to VC investor Bob Metcalfe, "mimicked photosynthesis with inorganic chemistry."  Nocera's Lab at MIT studies the basic mechanisms of energy conversion in biology and chemistry. 

Polaris swept in before Nocera published his paper, got a license from MIT's Technology Licensing Office, and seed-funded the company.  Amir Nashat, another MIT chemist, as well as a general partner at Polaris, became Sun Catalytix' founding CEO.  Polaris has been busy helping on the personnel front -- bolstering the ranks of the company's technical and operational team, as well as establishing an impressive Scientific Advisory Board. 

In late January, Sun Catalytix signed a contract for over $4 million in funding from the U.S. DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).  Add that to the $3 million Polaris has invested into the firm over a series of tranches since 2008.

I spoke with board member Bob Metcalfe, the co-inventor of Ethernet and a General Partner at Polaris Venture Partners.     

Sun Catalytix aims to commercialize a new, affordable catalyst that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Nocera has envisioned a residential off-grid solar system that uses solar electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.  The hydrogen gas is stored in a tank and can be used to create electricity even when the sun isn't shining via a fuel cell.  The system can also synthesize clean water from the gases. Alternately, the gas can be transformed into some type of motor fuel or non-carbon-containing material, such as ammonia.

Nocera sees this system as the potential enabler of the hydrogen economy.  Transport of hydrogen is no longer an issue, since hydrogen production is now distributed, residence by residence.

That's the vision -- but companies need business plans as well, and the firm is still figuring out the interim steps and products it needs to execute en route to its destination.  They will partner with fuel cell firms and solar firms to construct the full-cycle system.  Metcalfe expects the business to be "partner-heavy" and explains that the next round of funding will include a syndicate of investors.  He also envisions this startup's road to success being one of capital efficiency, requiring just single-digit millions to get to critical mass.

The science underpinning Sun Catalytix is deep.  An amorphous cobalt–phosphate catalyst in solution at neutral pH at one atmosphere can electrolyze water to H and O2. Metcalfe said the materials involved were non-toxic, "dirt-cheap" earth-abundant materials that "you could buy at Home Depot."  

In the electrolysis and fuel-cell aisle, presumably.

 

Tags: bob metcalfe, electrolysis, fuel cells, hydrogen, mit, polaris ventures, solar