"I was appalled to learn on Friday that our application is being delayed yet again," Gronet wrote in a Jan. 12, 2009, email to Steve Isakowitz, then the Energy Department's chief financial officer. "Many people worked through the holidays to make sure we were doing our part to stay on track."
Later that day, in another exchange with Isakowitz, Gronet vented further and relayed that he was speaking to David Frantz, a George W. Bush appointee who was then director of the department's Loan Guarantee Program.
"I am on the phone with David Frantz now, and I find the response completely unacceptable," Gronet wrote. "An apology from David is not enough."
A month later, Gronet wrote another email outlining 10 conditions that he wanted the Energy Department to meet as Solyndra tried to raise money from private investors. He pressed for Chu to visit Solyndra, even suggesting talking points about construction jobs and green manufacturing that the Energy secretary could use.
"Another example of how America solves problems with the engine of innovation (new solar panel design born in Silicon Valley)," Gronet wrote in the Feb. 20, 2009, email. "I hope Solyndra can be a great first project with rapid results for the Loan Guarantee Program." (The documents released to date do not include a direct response to Gronet's list of 10 conditions.)
Gronet, 49, has a solid Silicon Valley resume, including a bachelor's degree in materials science and a doctorate in semiconductor processing from Stanford University. One of his mentors was James Gibbons, the legendary former dean of Stanford's School of Engineering.
In the mid-1980s, Gibbons and a small group of doctoral students, including Gronet, worked together on "rapid thermal processing," a semiconductor manufacturing process that involves quickly heating silicon wafers to extraordinarily high temperatures.
Gronet and Gibbons jointly filed several patents and founded a startup called G-Squared Semiconductor, with the goal of manufacturing RTP (rapid thermal processing) equipment. Applied Materials acquired G-Squared in 1991 for an undisclosed sum, and Gronet became general manager of Applied's RTP Product Group. He stayed with Applied for 11 years, until 2002.
After taking a few years off, he joined U.S. Venture Partners in Menlo Park, Calif., as an entrepreneur-in-residence, a common move for talented executives eager to launch their own tech startups. In 2005, Gronet began spending time at the Colorado offices of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, the government's premier lab for renewable energy research and development. The vast majority of solar panels manufactured in the world are made with silicon, but researchers at NREL and elsewhere were experimenting with materials such as copper, indium, gallium and selenium, known as CIGS.
"He wanted to do a startup, and he asked us, 'Can you guys show me what CIGS is about?' " said Rommel Noufi, a solar scientist at NREL who met Gronet in 2005. "We spent a year showing him the technology. He's a very good scientist, and he's an easy person to work with -- very agreeable and accommodating."
One of the big manufacturing challenges with CIGS is that it is very sensitive to moisture. Gronet and his team ultimately came up with a new "form factor" -- instead of manufacturing a flat solar panel, they would etch CIGS material onto a glass tube and insert it into a second outer tube that would be hermetically sealed.
"From my point of view, it was a smart idea," Noufi said. "We thought there was innovation there."
The company was incorporated as Gronet Technologies in May 2005 and renamed Solyndra in January 2006. In 2006, the company responded to a solicitation from the Energy Department, which was looking to invest in clean technology.
Out of 143 interested companies, Solyndra was one of just 16 companies invited to submit a full application for an Energy Department loan guarantee. The process was arduous: Scores of consultants reviewed the applications, and Solyndra's was ultimately approved after Obama took office.
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chu attended the high-profile groundbreaking of the company's original Fremont, Calif., factory in September 2009, and Solyndra quickly became the poster child for both the stimulus funding and the promise of green jobs.
But the solar market was changing rapidly. The cost of silicon was plunging and Chinese competitors were expanding, flooding the market.
After Obama's visit in May 2010, Gronet largely disappeared from public view. Brian Harrison was named CEO that July; venture capitalists who serve on Solyndra's board of directors declined to comment as to why Gronet was ultimately pushed aside. Gronet remained on Solyndra's board of directors but resigned his position as chairman Aug. 19, days before Solyndra imploded. It filed for bankruptcy in September.
"He will be pursuing new opportunities and challenges in cleantech," Solyndra said in the last news release issued before ceasing operations. "We would like to thank Chris for his innovations and efforts that gave birth to Solyndra and for his visionary leadership during the first five years. We wish him success in his new endeavors."
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