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Inside a solar-technology disruptor

The story of solar company, 1366 Technologies, shows how green-tech start-ups need a combination of technology, entrepreneurial smarts, and capital to make a big impact.

What will it take to make solar electricity cheaper than grid power?

The 20 employees at 1366 Technologies, a solar start-up in Lexington, Mass., say they have the answer, and it's within sight. Rather than pursue one technology breakthrough, the company is hammering away at the cost of solar with a series of incremental improvements. The target is to cut the cost of making silicon cells in half to get below $1 per watt by 2012.

Ely Sachs and Frank van Mierlo at the ribbon-cutton ceremony for the opening of 1366 Technologies plant opening. Click on the image to see a photo gallery of the facility. Martin LaMonica/CNET

1366 Technologies, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off, is the subject of a profile, "Making solar cheaper than coal." It's the third installment of CNET News' "Green Tech at a Crossroads" special report.

For the first two articles, see "In search of the Google of green tech" and "They got their green-tech bill. So now what?"

It's a small company, but 1366 Technologies has assembled an impressive team, according to Michael Rogol of solar-consulting firm Photon Consulting. Frank van Mierlo, the company's president, boasts that 35 percent of its employees have a Ph.D. and that combined, its staff holds more than 100 years of solar-photovoltaic industry experience.

Among those Ph.D.s is Chief Technical Officer Emmanuel (Ely) Sachs, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering. He developed the original lab work that 1366 Technologies is commercializing. To the right is a clip of my interview with Sachs and van Mierlo.

Like many people who work in the green-tech industry, Sachs and van Mierlo chose to work in solar because they want to make a difference in some of the world's big problems--energy security and climate change.

Although the company's success is far from assured, it has assembled the attributes that many green-tech start-ups need to succeed: world-class technology, entrepreneurial skills, and, at least for now, access to capital.

It also faces the same challenge as many green-tech companies: scaling up its business fast enough so that it can deliver a cost-effective product.

"The biggest challenge for any solar start-up is to ramp up manufacturing capacity in order to drive down cost. Financing may create additional hurdles, but it is really execution of operations, in line with technology expectations, that will be the challenge," said Rogol. "Given 1366's operations team, I suspect that it will be an exciting couple of years for them, as they ramp up operations and pursue rapid cost reductions. Only time will tell if it will work."