Rao Mulpuri talks about glass and windows with a zeal that most men his age save for their favorite sports or fantasy teams. But what gets Mulpuri, 44, really juiced is disruptive innovation on a large scale; something his company–View Inc. (formerly Soladigm, Inc.)—is doing in the historically stodgy realm of window glass. So much so that Corning recently led a $60 million investment in the Milpitas, Ca-based company.
Mulpuri has spent his entire career focused on developing thin films and nanotechnology which are the key building blocks to taking ordinary glass and making it dynamic or smart—with the ability to change tints on demand in order to keep the temperature inside a building comfortable without the help of massive heating and cooling systems. While View’s dynamic glass currently costs builders about 50% more per square foot than standard architectural glass—the fact that they can install smaller heating and air conditioning systems and that the dynamic glass can result in up to a 25% reduction in HVAC energy consumption and 30% reduction in peak load and requires no additional window treatments like blinds is starting to close that gap. Considering that roughly 40% of all energy generated in the industrialized world is consumed by buildings, both the opportunity and need for better energy saving solutions is immense.
While that opportunity could prove overwhelming, CEO Mulpuri fully understands View is working in an industry where the materials and manufacturing processes have evolved little, if at all, over decades. “The slow rate of change has less to do with the magnitude of the need—which is immense—or the willingness of people to adopt new technologies, but rather the availability of technologies on an industrial scale,” Mulpuri notes. He says the secret to View’s success has been the ability to leverage talent, equipment, materials and process control from industries where such innovations have already been scaled up—namely semiconductor, disk drive, flat panel display, and thin film solar–and effectively apply them to proven durable building materials while not seeking to change the entrenched ways builders purchase and install glass. “Our process is disruptive in its effect, but it is not channel disruptive,” Mulpuri says. “We leverage existing building blocks and existing building management systems. View is where Silicon Valley technology meets world-class glass manufacturing.”
Mulpuri grew up in India around major civil construction projects like dams and power plants which his father—also a mechanical engineer he refers to as his hero—was managing as Chief Engineer of an infrastructure company before going on to build his own steel fabrication company. Mulpuri came to the U.S. in 1989 and graduated from Boston University with a Masters in Manufacturing Engineering and later earned a PhD in Material Science. He moved to the West Coast and spent the next 11 years in the semiconductor industry—most of it at Novellus building the company’s thin film coatings business starting as a technologist, and then transitioning from technical to running the business as a vice president and general manager and then as President of Novellus Japan.
As proud as Mulpuri is of his work at Novellus, he knows that View is the company with the potential to really shake up an industry. Others feel the same way: in addition to Corning taking a stake, DBL Investors, General Electric Co., Khosla Ventures, NanoDimension, Sigma Partners, The Westly Group and Navitas Capital, among others, have invested in the company and View has raised over $300 million in financing to date. Corning, which historically spends 100% of its $800 million a year of R&D dollars in-house, earlier this year placed its sizeable bet on View leading an investment round of $60 million and taking a seat on the company’s board. Corning is clearly trying to replicate its runaway success with Gorilla Glass. Gorilla Glass–which is used in Apple and Samsung smartphones–produced no revenue as recently as 2007 and today contributes over $1 billion annually to Corning. “We’re excited to collaborate with View,” said Martin J. Curran, executive vice president and innovation officer for Corning, at the time of the investment. “While dynamic glass has been in development for decades, we believe View’s unique approach will finally bring this technology into the mainstream.”
View is not without competition; last year its main rival in dynamic glass, Sage Electrochromics, was acquired by glass and materials conglomerate Saint-Gobain. And despite huge projections—Mulpuri notes that about 25 billion square feet of glass are used for architectural purposes and even if only a portion of that market switches to dynamic glass that ultimately results in a market size of $100 billion—this year a paltry $88 million was spent on dynamic glass worldwide according to projections by Navigant Research. Even so, demand is growing fast enough that View was completely sold out in 2013 and is now working on fulfilling orders well into 2014. Navigant projects the annual value of the smart glass market will grow to $899 million by 2022 and predicts that growth is likely to accelerate after that.
Mulpuri likes the fact that his six-year-old company is one of those in the vanguard of bringing high-tech manufacturing back to the U.S. It’s evident in the company’s Milpitas headquarters—a reconditioned Seagate disk drive manufacturing plant—that Mulpuri repurposed to coat glass and even more so in its state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that recently went online in Olive Branch, Mississippi. “I love this because we are actually making stuff here in the U.S.,” Mulpuri says. “It’s not vaporware—it’s real.”
View CEO Rao Mulpuri will participate in the first FORBES Reinventing America Summit to be held March 26-28, 2014 in Chicago.
Disclosure: In the course of reporting this story, Contributor Paul Noglows found out that he owns a tiny stake in View through an earlier investment in Navitas Capital, a cleantech venture capital firm.
Follow me on Twitter @PaulNoglows.
Leading the Next Industrial Revolution | March 26-28, 2014 | J.W. Marriott | Chicago, Illinois
Forbes will be hosting a Reinventing America Summit March 26-28, 2014, which will bring together 300 top industrial executives, entrepreneurs, academics and elected officials who are leading the country’s next Industrial Revolution.
Please join us (more information is here).