2011 will be a make or break year for many of the next-generation of thin film solar startups that are using the material copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) to make solar cells. Close to a dozen companies are aiming to either ramp up, or move into, production.


2011 will be a make or break year for many of the next-generation of thin film solar startups that are using the material copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) to make solar cells. Companies like Miasole, Nanosolar, SoloPower, HelioVolt, Solyndra, Stion, Solar Frontier, Sulfurcell, and AQT, which were founded years ago, are now aiming to either ramp up production into a commercial phase, or move into production from a demonstration phase.

Some of these companies won’t make it and will either get acquired for very little or go into a dead zone of inaction and shuttered plants. Others could do pretty well, scaling up and winning customers. The public markets weren’t ready for Solyndra last year (though the DOE was) but could it be ready for a possible Miasole IPO this year?

Here’s where are all these players are now:

Company Founded Technology Investors Where are they now?
Miasole 2001 Miasole sputters CIGS onto layers of thin flat steel. Sputtering is where atoms are blown off a material by force and sprayed onto a substrate. It’s the way the inside coating of a bag of potato chips is made. Miasole has raised between $300M and $350M, and is working on a new round of $125M. Investors include Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Firelake Capital Management, Passport Capital, Arcelor Mittal, Ecofin and Voyageur Mutual Funds. Miasole has reportedly recently raised most of a new $125 million round, at a down valuation, and is reportedly looking to IPO potentially later in 2011. Miasole has brought in some important customers recently, including a 600 MW deal with German project developer Juwi Solar, as well as deals with Chevron, ProLogis and Phoenix Solar.
HelioVolt 2001 HelioVolt prints CIGS layers onto a substrate (without using low pressure vacuum chambers). HelioVolt has raised at least $130 million in funding from NEA, Paladin Capital Group, Masdar Fund, Morgan Stanley, Noventi, Passport Capital. Most recently the company raised a couple small rounds of debt. HelioVolt has been stalled in neutral for the past year, and reportedly searching for a buyer.
Nanosolar 2002 Nanosolar prints solar cells with ink, and sputters for its bottom electrode (and also tries to use as little vacuum tools as possible.) Nanosolar has raised at least a half a billion dollars, from investors including Benchmark Capital, MDV, AES, the Carlyle Group, French utility EDF and Energy Capital Partners. After having announced the start of production in late 2007, Nanosolar told me on a tour at the end of last year that it has reached close to 50 MW annual production, and hopes to reach 115 MW by the Fall of 2011. Beck Energy connected the first 1.1 MW Nanosolar utility solar plant in June 2010, and a 3 MW project with EDF Energies Nouvelles is coming in the Spring 2011.
SoloPower 2006 SoloPower deposits CIGS on in a roll to roll process. Crosslink Capital, Hudson Clean Energy Partners, and Norwegian firm Convexa. In January SoloPower raised another round of raised $51.58 million, and scored a $197 million loan guarantee from the DOE earlier this month for its plant in Wilsonville, Oregon.
Stion 2006 Stion’s plan is to use off-the-shelf parts for sputtering and laminating machines CIGS onto substrates. The idea is to keep costs lower than building proprietary machines. Khosla Ventures, VentureTech Alliance, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Braemar Energy Ventures, General Catalyst Partners, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Stion plans to build a 100-MW factory in Hattiesburg, Miss, which it will expand to 500 MW and plans to hold an IPO in 2012. Mississippi is offering Stion a $75 million loan. Stion completed a 10-MW pilot production line in San Jose last year.
Solyndra 2005 Solyndra makes tube-shaped CIGS panels, which is says are lower cost to install. Close to a billion dollars in private equity from Argonaut Private Equity, Madrone Capital Partners, Rockport Capital, Masdar, Virgin Green Fund, CMEA Capital, USVP, Redpoint Ventures. Solyndra shipped 60 MW of modules to customers in 2010 and hopes to boost its annual production rate to 200 MW by the end of 2011. The company received the first DOE loan guarantee, but has since canceled an IPO and laid off workers.
Solar Frontier 2006, as Showa Shell Solar Solar Frontier is a division of Japanese oil refiner Showa Shell Showa Shell Solar Frontier expects to reach full scale production of 900 MW at its factory in Miyazaki prefecture, Japan, this summer.
Sulfurcell 2001 as a spinoff of Helmholtz Centre for Materials and Energy The German company was one of the earlier CIS makers, and has been moving into CIGS lately. Intel Capital, Climate Change Capital, Bankinvest Group, Vattenfall Europe and GdF Suez. Sulfurcell raised $25 million from Intel Capital and Climate Change Capital last month. The company actually started shipping its first panels from a pilot line in 2005, and can currently produce 35 MW of CIS panels, plus 5 MW of equipment to add selenium to make CIGS panels. Customers include the Prime Group in India and an unnamed Chinese company.
AQT 2007 AQT layers CIGSS on 6-inch glass pieces that can be drop-in replacement for crystalline silicon solar cells inside a panel. AQT contracts with other manufacturers to assemble those cells into panels. The company raised $13.5 million from investors. AQT plans to set up the factory in Richland County this year and start production in 2012, for two production lines totaling 30-40 MW this year.

Image courtesy of NREL.

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