DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alum plays key role in solar power development

Martha Symko-Davies says that she “took a gamble” upon graduating from the University of Denver in 1997 with her PhD.

As the first female graduate of the materials science program offered by DU’s Department of Physics, Symko-Davies had many doors open to her but decided to take a position with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo.

It was a gamble that may pay off in terawatts.

Today, Symko-Davies manages a photovoltaic incubator program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The program provides $3 million in funding over 18 months to start-up companies with cutting-edge approaches to generating solar power.

“These grants only go to companies that have the capacity to go from prototype to pilot production of their product in 18 months,” says Symko-Davies. “This funding is especially important right now considering the current decline in venture capital funding for renewable energy research and development.”

Symko-Davies has launched two classes of start-ups through the program — one class of 10 start-ups in 2007 and another class of six in 2008 — for a total of more than $11 million. On May 27, President Barack Obama approved another $16.5 million for the incubator, so Symko-Davies has sent out another competitive solicitation for a third class.

Her expectations of these companies are high.

“They must prove their idea, map their process, give me a price on their deliverables, give me hardware and show me they can do it,” she says. “If I’m going to fund something that will be truly revolutionary, then it also has to work at a cost of less than $1 per watt.”

She calls the science that she seeks to fund “disruptive innovation.”

“We see new science emerging with these companies,” she says. “It makes you optimistic.”

Symko-Davies has stayed connected to her alma mater through her children, Harrison and Audrey, who have both attended DU’s Fisher Early Learning Center. And she believes her PhD helps her every day on the job even though she is primarily in a management position now.

“I get five or six calls a day about a new technology,” she says. “Without my PhD from DU, I could not learn everything I need to learn every day. I could not make the decisions I have to make every day.”

Bhushan Sopori, principal engineer at NREL, was an adjunct professor at DU while Symko-Davies was earning her degree and was instrumental in her decision to work at the laboratory. He says she’s made the transition from research to management well.

“It is tricky to run the programs that Martha runs, and she is doing an excellent job. Her technical background and her PhD happen to be extremely valuable as she assesses these cutting-edge technologies. I work with the people in the solar start-ups, and they tell me that she is very helpful to them.”

Symko-Davies believes the companies she has funded so far will enter the market by 2011 and hopes there will be many more.

“Solar is the most abundant source of renewable energy,” she says. “Imagine the growth that can occur in this field. I’m proud that I’m helping to create some of the companies that will be part of that growth.”


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