Out of the lab: capitalizing on the world’s need for shade

A rise in temperature of just 1° Celsius reduces crop growth by as much as 25%—and the effects of climate change have already seen temperatures rise by almost 2° in the last 50 years. As global temperatures continue to rise, sustainable alternatives to traditional farming will be vital to preventing declines in crop growth.

KAUST startup Mirai Solar started in 2019 and quickly set its sights on creating a prototype that would impact those sustainable alternatives. With solar science backgrounds, Mirai’s scientists quickly set their sights on creating a new type of solar technology. Michael Salvador, a KAUST professor and the CEO of Mirai Solar, explained, “Our initial idea was to come up with a new type of solar panel that would be extremely lightweight, but still very efficient, lightweight, and foldable and flexible. The foundation of support KAUST offered, from mentorship to prototype funding, was vital in helping make their vision a reality.”

Innovative tech looking for the ideal application

Conventional solar technology is highly efficient, but it’s also bulky, difficult to move and usually isn’t very aesthetically pleasing. Newer generations of solar technology are flexible and less bulky. But these benefits come at the cost of efficiency. Mirai’s goal was to blend the benefits of both new and conventional solar tech to create an efficient and visually appealing solar panel. “So we kind of knew what we wanted to do, but we were looking for the ideal application. We had the vague idea that we could use our technology for portable, outdoor and architectural applications but had not identified a tangible problem that we wanted to solve. Still, we kind of pressed through it,” Salvador said.

What Mirai ultimately created is a dynamic solar panel that allows light to diffuse through it. The design allows the panel to fulfill its purpose: providing optimal shading while generating electricity, forming a photovoltaic shade screen. Rather than the thick, black glass that many envision when they think “solar panel,” Mirai’s panel is a thin plastic-based sheet. And unlike traditional solar, Mirai’s solar is lightweight and foldable.

Mirai’s solar panels

In traditional photovoltaics, sunlight hits the solar cells that make up a solar panel. Then, the cells absorb the sunlight. Next, the solar cell converts the sunlight into an electrical current that can be either readily used or stored. Michael explains, “If you would buy a commercial panel and you look at it, you will see that it’s fully covered with solar cells to maximize the power density.” But Mirai’s solar panels are different.

Mirai’s solar panels are a hybrid of traditional photovoltaic panels and plastic sheets or fabric. This allows light to pass through the panel while using the blocked sunlight to generate electricity, unlike a conventional shading screen. But even after developing its groundbreaking solar tech, Mirai still hadn’t identified a viable business model.

Mirai Screens turn shade into power

After further R&D, the scientists at Mirai Solar created prototypes of their solar panel. Then they presented the prototypes to share what they had created with other young entrepreneurs at KAUST. Sitting in the audience at the presentation was Ryan Lefers, CEO of Red Sea Farms, a KAUST startup that creates sustainable agriculture alternatives.

Michael recalled that after Mirai’s presentation, Lefers approached the Mirai team and explained the problem he saw in the greenhouse industry. While greenhouses are an excellent way to grow food year-round because they provide a climate-controlled environment, they’re also highly energy-intensive. Greenhouses use large amounts of power to regulate the temperature inside and maintain optimal growing conditions.

Mirai’s solar panels

Lefers explained that the solution to this problem was replacing traditional shade screens that don’t do anything but provide shade. With this new purpose in mind, Mirai’s team began designing solar panels to meet the specific needs of greenhouses. “We want to generate electricity,” Michael said. “But we also want to provide the plants that grow underneath with sufficient sunlight. So we have to balance both the sunlight for the plants and the power generation. This requires an unprecedented integrative design for a solar panel.”

Today, Mirai’s solar panels serve a dual purpose, making them the perfect replacement for traditional shade screens. Mirai’s solar panels do exactly this by converting sunlight to electricity while also providing adjustable shade settings that guarantee optimal growing conditions year-round.

Powering the greenhouse and beyond

After finishing the development of its solar panel, Mirai Solar quickly realized that there were many applications for it. First and foremost, Red Sea Farms needed a replacement for shade screens that would also generate power. With only a limited quantity of arable land available to use, agriculture and energy generation are forced to compete for the space they need to grow food or build a sustainable power station. Mirai’s dual-purpose solar panels eliminate this competition by creating greenhouses that both grow food and generate power on the same land.

This puts Mirai Solar at the forefront of agrivoltaics—the industry at the intersection of agriculture and solar energy generation—which is poised to become a multi-billion dollar industry. As climate change makes it harder for farmers to bring water into their fields, a key solution will be the greenhouses that Mirai’s solar tech powers. Growing food in a greenhouse uses between 20% and 40% less water than open-land farming. Farmers are expected to turn to sustainable greenhouse options because of benefits like this. As a result, the greenhouse industry is expected to grow by more than 6% within the next five years. And for high-tech greenhouses, like those that employ advanced solar tech, industry growth is predicted to be as high as 10%.

The benefits of combining shading and energy generation aren’t exclusive to agriculture. Mirai’s solar panels can help all buildings minimize environmental impact. For example, homeowners looking to lower their ecological footprint can install Mirai’s solar panels as a retractable awning to cover a backyard patio. Homeowners would be able to enjoy the afternoon outside in the shade while generating power that will help lower the property’s energy bill.

Recreational vehicles like motorhomes can also take advantage of a Mirai solar panel awning. When travelers park to set up camp, they can simply unfold the awning and generate energy to help power the vehicle for the next day of travel. Similarly, car parks can use Mirai’s solar panels to provide a roof over parked cars while generating enough power to charge the smart vehicles parked underneath.

KAUST empowered Mirai to advance solar technology

Today, Mirai’s groundbreaking solar technology has many real-world applications, but none of them would be possible without the support of KAUST. “Obviously, KAUST was really key—and still is in many moments,” Michael said. “Without the funding from KAUST [our solar tech] would have not been, by any means, possible.”

KAUST supported Mirai’s research and development with funding through the Research Translation Fund before getting incorporated. The team at Mirai then used those funds to scale up, incorporate, and obtain seed funding.

But KAUST didn’t just support Mirai Solar financially; it also supported the team through TAQADAM, an accelerator program designed to guide startups like Mirai to success. “TAQADAM was important because it was a real learning stage for us,” Michael said. The program helped the team at Mirai shift their thought processes from focusing on engineering to steering their new business to success. Michael elaborated, “You know, we are all scientists. And so we had to rewire our brains a little bit and become more entrepreneurial.”

The Mirai Solar team

Participating in the accelerator program turned the scientists at Mirai into empowered business leaders. It also created opportunities for Mirai to connect with other organizations that could support their efforts. “Through TAQADAM, we also got connected to many, many other businesses, professionals and entrepreneurship centers in the world, particularly in the U.S.,” Michael said.

One of the most vital of those connections was with Bulent Erbilgin, a key mentor at the University of California at Berkeley and visiting professor at KAUST. And today, the Mirai team still looks to Bulent for advice and support, proving the long-term value of the connections startups make through KAUST’s Entrepreneurship Center. These kinds of benefits will help Mirai Solar as the team moves into their next phase, in which they hope to gain investment funds to scale and achieve product certification for the solar tech.

Learn more about how KAUST supports environmental efforts by looking at some of the innovations from other startups we’ve partnered with.