iyris: Creating Next Generation Glass

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Saudi Arabia is known around the world as an oil-rich country. But oil is not the only abundant resource — there’s also plenty of sunlight to go around. iyris, founded by solar energy experts Derya Baran, Nicola Gasparini, Daniel Bryant, and Joel Troughton, is a startup that has made it its mission to capitalize on the Saudi sun by producing smart glass: transparent solar cells that integrate into windows.

The Future of Energy with iyris

The one-line pitch for iyris is “glass in the future saves energy,” and that’s what the four co-founders of the startup focus on. Each square meter of their patented solar windows can generate electricity as well as reduce heat. This unique combination will change the future of buildings and agriculture in sun-rich countries.

That’s great news for Saudi Arabia, as buildings are currently shooting up all over the country. New buildings mean new opportunities to create an energy-efficient society with the latest state-of-the-art technology such as the solar windows from iyris.

“We are focusing on energy harvesting devices with an aim to convert sunlight, which is free and available everywhere, especially in areas like Saudi Arabia, into electricity,” Baran says.

But the startup’s plans stretch far beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia. There are over one billion people living in desert regions across the world, and all of them could benefit from this cutting-edge technology. Not only can the solar windows help conserve energy, but it also facilitates the production of food and crops in otherwise inerrable regions.

The team behind iyris is a mix of international scientists and engineers with years of experience in renewable energy. In addition to the engineering and scientific knowledge of Nicola Gasparini, Daniel Bryant, and Joel Troughton, the startup also benefits from the advice and experience of KAUST professor Derya Baran.

“My team members were working on solar energy-related issues, and we came up with the idea behind our startup, as our findings can be a viable solution to the energy problems of the future,” Baran explains.

Professor Baran’s Omega Lab at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) has been the testing ground for the iyris project, and the professor ultimately wants to use their solution for the biggest glass buildings currently in existence: skyscrapers.

A global grand challenge, food production, originally sparked the idea behind iyris. In the desert, much of the fresh produce is grown in greenhouses, and while there are great solutions on the market, these are typically geared towards northern climates. Unfortunately, those same solutions don’t work as well in desert environments, which require huge amounts of energy to cool greenhouses. The iyris team realized that they could embed their solar glass directly into the greenhouse panels, significantly lowering the energy costs for farmers.

The secret lies in the glass itself. The iyris team used optics and solar energy technology to turn the glass panes into solar cells, and then combined sensor technology and data analytics to create a system that makes energy consumption and conservation easy to monitor.

Once the technology concept behind the glass was solid, the team moved on to the actual greenhouse designs. They consulted regional experts in Saudi Arabia to ensure that their designs were optimized for the desert by incorporating the latest growing and cooling technologies.

iyris has received a seed fund from the KAUST Innovation Fund to develop its energy-saving glass product. The team is in the process of testing and optimizing each component to be suitable for Saudi Arabia and GCC regions. Whenever new developments happen in the glass, greenhouse, and solar energy space, iyris plans to incorporate them into their designs.

iyris’ TAQADAM Experience

The startup entered the TAQADAM Accelerator during the second cohort in 2018 and achieved great success during the program. With seed funding from the program and access to different networks in Saudi Arabia, TAQADAM provided the team with an excellent opportunity to move their lab research into a commercially viable prototype.

TAQADAM is a startup accelerator for entrepreneurs based in Saudi Arabia. Each team that successfully applies to TAQADAM receives as much as SR150,000 (USD $40,000) to launch their project. The co-founders are also granted access to all the relevant facilities, co-working spaces, as well as the guidance of KAUST’s marketing and experts from industry and government.

At the end of the six-month program, top startups from the years’ cohort pitch for further funding to a panel of judges. After competing against 27 promising startups in the program, iyris made the shortlist of six finalists who each received an additional SR375,000 (USD $100,000) zero-equity grant funding.

What the Future Looks Like for iyris

Following TAQADAM Accelerator, the iyris team also participated in Startup Istanbul 2018, where they won third place. That same year, MIT Technology Review named Professor Baran one of the top “Innovators Under 35” in the MENA region for her novel and innovative iyris technology. Baran has also recently been chosen as a member of the Global Young Academy, an international society of young scientists, for her work in contributing to the global change in the field of renewable energy.

Since the startup received their pre-seed and seed funding in 2018 and 2019, they’ve been hard at work in Saudi Arabia and with partners in the United Kingdom to make the project a commercially viable product.

“We are currently working very hard to commercialize this technology and we expect it to hit the market within the next couple of years,” Troughton explains.

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