Rick Hess is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Konarka, based in Lowell MA. Prior to joining Konarka, he was Chief Executive Officer of Integrated Fuel Cell Technologies, a venture-backed company in Burlington, MA.
How do you view China’s entry into the energy marketplace? How attractive is China for a company like yours?
China is producing first generation technologies, and we are producing third-generation technologies and beyond. We will not look to manufacture our material in China in the near term, but we will certainly sell into the Chinese market, which certainly has increasing demand for renewable energy sources.
What other states did you look at? Why did you ultimately decide on Massachusetts?
The proximity to UMass Lowell, as well as other educational institutions in the region, along with access to qualified technical people are compelling reasons for any company like ours to establish itself in Massachusetts. The state’s support with loans from MDC and MDT, as well as the positive education and technical atmosphere, also make it an attractive choice. In terms of New Bedford, the Polaroid facility was a perfect the fit in terms of capacity, equipment and access to the same employees, who were already trained and well-versed on the equipment.
How valuable are the colleges and universities in product and company development, particularly UMass Lowell, where you got your start?
Extremely valuable. The work being done in the chemistry department on low temperature processing of materials helped to spawn the development of our technology. It is one of the main attractions for us.
What are the challenges and benefits of having R+D in Lowell and Manufacturing in New Bedford?
The benefit is having everyone in the same geographic region, the same time zone. We have points of presence all over the world, and in today’s economy companies are used to working globally. However, it is a strong positive to have research, development and manufacturing in the same area, as it maximizes communication and information sharing.
What do you think the renewable energy industry needs to take off in Massachusetts?
We think it is taking off, as companies like ours are manufacturing and bringing invention to commercialization. Massachusetts is already a hot bed for renewable energy research and development, and we’re leading the way in initial commercialization of Power Plastic®, selling it to companies who are integrating into their product lines, including solar bags, café umbrellas and battery charging devices.
What was your strategy facing the economic downturn?
Since we are in the early stages of our revenue and product ramp up, the downturn did not significantly affect our business plans.
What are the challenges of doing business in the state and what can Massachusetts do to better to assist companies like Konarka that are growing within the state?
The state can continue to support us with appropriate loans and by continuing to create and maintain an atmosphere that provides education and solid technology experience.
How did Konarka take advantage of the venture capital funding opportunities within the state?
The proximity of venture capital companies in the region is positive, although Konarka received support from VC firms from around the world. The availability of people in the area who have start-up backgrounds is also helpful.
What were the challenges of finding the right site for your company, and what advice would you give to others who are determining their site location?
For us, since we were partially spun out of UMass Lowell, the immediate site location was easily determined. For appropriate companies, utilizing the university setting can lead to site and personnel determination.
What was a turning point in your career? How did it contribute to your business philosophy?
I have had many turning points in my career, and they have taught me to be open and flexible to change, as well as patient because many times the direction and the turn cannot be anticipated or timed. Many people try to over plan their careers, but sometimes you just have to go with what comes at you.