Quest to harness sun’s energy

Graduate Studies, Science, Engineering

- Richard Dal Monte

Sahar Sam, co-founder and chief science officer of Solaires Entreprises Inc., was a participant in UVic innovation centre’s W Launch and W Venture programs. Credit: UVic Photo Services.

In a country built on oil and gas extracted from deep beneath the Earth, Sahar Sam had her eyes on the skies.

Sunshine baked her hometown of Shiraz, in south central Iran, and even though gas was cheap, the daughter of teachers earned first a Bachelor of Science, then a Master of Science (materials science and engineering) and focused on advancing the use of solar energy as a clean alternative.

Now, after a decade living in somewhat-less-sunny Victoria, BC, Sam’s quest continues thanks to her PhD and postdoctoral studies at UVic as well as her collaborations with local researchers.

Sam is co-founder and chief science officer of Solaires Entreprises Inc., a cleantech company that is developing solar cell technology that could more than double the energy conversion efficiency of current solar panels. The key is designing and coating five layers of different materials that are one-billionth of a metre thick and translucent, and layered upon one another to allow absorption and conversion of the sun’s rays into electricity.

While her interest in solar energy goes back to her days at Shiraz University, Sam admits she didn’t see the potential of nanostructures until they proved challenging to use during her UVic postdoctoral research into development of a device for detecting early-stage cancers.

The connections that caused problems in one application suggested promise in another.

This approach—turning a difficulty into an opportunity—goes back to her childhood, she says. “As a kid, if I was drawing something and something went wrong, I would never, ever throw it out, I would change it. If it was supposed to be a mountain and it looked really ugly, I made it a house.

“There is always a way to solve a problem,” she says. “Don’t look at it as a problem, look at it as an opportunity to create something with that.”

Opportunity to create

While that’s Sam’s personal mantra, her research is an endeavour involving many minds.

In addition to the team she and Solaires chief executive and co-founder Fabian de la Fuente have assembled since launching the company in February 2020, she’s also collaborating with and supporting the work of two research teams at UVic led by Makhsud Saidaminov and Ralph Evins.

“We’re trying to develop a new material that enables having light, flexible and in some cases translucent solar modules,” Sam explains. Those modules could be installed on windows or even on top of RVs, generating electricity while allowing light to pass through.

The collaboration is crucial, she says, connecting university researchers with industry and, potentially, students with mentors outside of academia.

Collab for the future

Sam says she has benefited from such connections through programs such as W Venture for entrepreneurial women and the Coast Capital Innovation Centre, UVic’s on-campus venture incubator that provides support and mentorship for entrepreneurs to take business concepts from ideas to investor-ready enterprises.

She’s also keen on UVic’s efforts to grow its innovation community including at KWENCH, a work and culture club located in downtown Victoria. Read this UVic news release: Accelerate Innovation at UVic KWENCH.

“More and more, I think about my journey, I realize how much we need to have more visibility for the available supports that we have at UVic,” she says.

“We need to create the connections between the researchers and supports like KWENCH or Coast Capital Innovation Centre,” Sam says, so they know, when they’re at the end of their education and wanting to start their own company, that they aren’t alone.

“I learned a lot from my mentors and I owe them a lot,” she says, noting that while she’s still relatively new in business and has big goals for Solaires, she has another, more personal goal: “I want to get to the point that I can help and I can give back to the UVic community the way I was helped.”

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Keywords: community, Indigenous, international, sustainability, research, graduate research, sustainability, partnerships, industry partnerships

People: Sahar Sam, Makhsud Saidaminov, Ralph Evins


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