THE ENGINEERING QUESTION
A great technology company should have proprietary technology an order of magnitude better than its nearest substitute. But cleantech companies rarely produced 2x, let alone 10x, improvements. Sometimes their offerings were actually worse than the products they sought to replace. Solyndra developed novel, cylindrical solar cells, but to a first approximation, cylindrical cells are only 1 / π as efficient as flat ones—they simply don’t receive as much direct sunlight. The company tried to correct for this deficiency by using mirrors to reflect more sunlight to hit the bottoms of the panels, but it’s hard to recover from a radically inferior starting point. Companies must strive for 10x better because merely incremental improvements often end up meaning no improvement at all for the end user. Suppose you develop a new wind turbine that’s 20% more efficient than any existing technology—when you test it in the laboratory. That sounds good at first, but the lab result won’t begin to compensate for the expenses and risks faced by any new product in the real world. And even if your system really is 20% better on net for the customer who buys it, people are so used to exaggerated claims that you’ll be met with skepticism when you try to sell it. Only when your product is 10x better can you offer the customer transparent superiority
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