Michael Ahearn, chairman and former CEO of First Solar, is getting into the venture capital game with the launch of a new $300 million venture fund that has already raised $192 million, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing (first reported by VentureWire). What might his new fund be planning to invest in?
It’s hard to say right now. The new Tempe, Ariz.-based True North Venture Partners hasn’t revealed much about its plans, or even specified whether solar power or green technology will be its focus. A First Solar representative told VentureWire that the thin-film solar panel giant isn’t involved in the fund.
Last week’s SEC filing lists Ahearn as the manager of True North Management Partners, which is listed as general partner of True North Venture Partners, but reveals little else about the fund’s purpose.
Nor does it list the investors responsible for the $192 million raised so far. Ahearn, himself, certainly doesn’t lack for cash — in February 2010, he sold 1.3 million shares of First Solar stock for $141.8 million, several months after handing the CEO job to former Honeywell executive Robert Gillette in order to devote his time to lobbying the government on energy policy.
If Ahearn does choose to focus on solar startups, he’ll have good company. Solar power attracted $1.83 billion in VC investment last year, not as high as 2008’s record solar year but on the upswing from a lackluster 2009. While much of that investment has gone toward would-be competitors of First Solar, a good portion has been flowing to software and services for the solar sector as well. Technology to track and manage solar power’s integration with the grid is also an area with room for innovation and growth.
Interestingly, the True North name has its roots in an investment firm called True North Partners that Ahearn founded with John T. Walton, one of the children of Walmart founder Sam Walton, back in 1996. That firm was later renamed JWMA Partners, and remains the single biggest holder of First Solar stock. Walmart invested $25 million in First Solar in 2008 and has been a customer for some time, most recently in a 15-megawatt distributed solar power project including thin-film CIGS solar panel maker Miasole and installer SolarCity.
First Solar has been doing its share of acquisitions as well. It bought up solar panel tracking equipment maker RayTracker for an undisclosed sum last month, and is said to be considering buying 5N Plus, a company that produces the tellurium required for its cadmium-telluride thin-film panels.
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