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Rare Earth Solar blazes trail, brings jobs as Nebraska solar panel maker

Rare Earth Solar co-founder Allen Kruse (left) visits with Jane Garrity (right), a technology agent at NUtech Ventures, which has helped Rare Earth with licensing, among other things. Photo by Kate Ellingson.

Rare Earth Solar co-founders Allen Kruse and Joseph Brewer met at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln while Brewer was getting his doctorate in inorganic chemistry and tutoring Kruse in his chemistry class. Brewer started telling Kruse about his solar technology invention and that he was thinking about starting a business. Kruse, a Navy veteran and businessman, has experience starting businesses, and it caught his attention. “After knowing each other for well over a year, we’d become very good friends at that point,” Kruse said, “and he approached me and I took a couple of weeks to learn more about it.”

After Kruse and Brewer decided the venture was a good idea, the two worked quickly and started the business last October. “There’s a big difference between entrepreneurs and people that just have great ideas,” Kruse said, “and that’s the willingness to take that first step.”

Kruse (below left, photo by Kate Ellingson), Rare Earth’s CEO, and Brewer (below right, photo couresy of NUtech Ventures), the company’s CTO, worked with NUtech Ventures, an organization responsible for building partnerships between the University of Nebraska and the private sector, on the exclusive licensing agreement. In February, the company secured its first round of funding from one U.S.-based equity firm. Kruse didn’t disclose the terms of funding, but he said that it will help with research and development and production and will fund the company through the first quarter of of 2013.

The solar technology started when Nebraska chemistry professor Chin Li “Barry” Cheung and Brewer, then his doctoral student, developed it. The thin film solar panel manufacturer will use rare earth elements, which Kruse says are more readily available and less expensive than competing commercial materials. The patent-pending technology replaces the typical semiconductor materials now used in solar cell manufacture with the rare earth elements.

Agreements are currently in place for the company to purchase the former Husqvarna building in Beatrice, 40 miles south of Lincoln. To start, Rare Earth will hire 25-30 people, who will be senior-level management, R&D, engineers and high-tech staff. Ultimately, the company aims bring 100 jobs to the community. They’ll start selling the full-scale panels in the U.S. and overseas in the second quarter of 2012. Said Jane Garrity, the NUtech Ventures technology agent that worked with Rare Earth Solar: “This is a great example of how technology and research at the University can drive regional economic development.”

Rare Earth will be the first solar panel manufacturer in Nebraska, but the company had offers to locate in other states. “A radio station caught one of the state senators mentioning us at the tail end of a wind speech,” Kruse said. “After that I got a call from probably two dozen economic development authorities across the country. Up to date, I’ve been offered four buildings for a dollar, all 250-500,000 square feet in size, ranging from New Jersey to Arizona to California. When you’re offered free cash and a building for a buck, it makes it extremely difficult.”

But being located in Nebraska was more important for the co-founders. “We believe that the work ethic that you find here in the Midwest as well as company loyalty to some degree is just much better than what you’ll find on the coasts,” Kruse said. “In addition to that, with Nebraska, they’re a right-to-work state; they have one of the best economic positions in regards to their debt structure. They have one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates. The governor’s initiatives to bolster and diversify Nebraska’s economy, such as the tax advantage program and the ever-expanding Nebraska Advantage Act, I think that it does wonders in terms of helping push Nebraska forward and it definitely helps us in our decision.”

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