Where’s the innovation in solar these days? The thin film solar companies that raised hundreds of millions of dollars a couple years ago (Nanosolar, Heliovolt, Miasole, Solyndra) are now struggling to reach commercial-scale production, while utility-scale solar thermal companies like BrightSource and eSolar are racing to build some of their first solar plants in the world’s deserts.
But the solar sector is still the second most popular area for greentech venture investment, according to the Cleantech Group, which reports that solar companies received $322 million in 27 deals worldwide for the first quarter of 2010. The largest rounds went to Intel-backed (s INTC) crystalline silicon solar cell maker SpectraWatt, and pole-mounted solar system maker PetraSolar.
However, those are solar firms that have been on the scene for awhile, so what are the next-generation of early-stage solar startups that could help change the game — and the economics — for solar technology? Well, here’s three young and stealthy solar startups that have been turning heads this week:
1). SkyWatch Energy: Not much is known about the technology behind SkyWatch Energy, the solar startup backed by Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures (Khosla will be speaking at our Green:Net 2010 conference on April 29 in San Francisco). But this week, according to an SEC filing (hat tip New Energy Finance) the stealthy company has raised $10.5 million. SkyWatch Energy was in the process of raising $3.2 million in its first round of funding late last year, but seems to have boosted that amount significantly.
SkyWatch employs several experienced solar entrepreneurs, including chief executive Gilad Almogy, who was previously a senior vice president in charge of display and thin-film products at semiconductor manufacturing equipment maker Applied Materials (s AMAT). LinkedIn profiles indicate that SkyWatch’s director of engineering, as well as a senior project manager for the company, also came from Applied Materials. SkyWatch’s director of technology Joe Lichy (LinkedIn profile), has experience with concentrating-solar technologies and previously served as a vice president at now-defunct flat-plate solar-concentrator company SV Solar. He also was formerly the president of another solar-concentrator company, NuEdison, which was bought by SV Solar in 2007.
2). SunReports: Perhaps using IT to monitor solar systems will be a hot area of innovation in 2010. According to the Cleantech Group, solar monitoring startup SunReports came out of stealth this morning with its product called Apollo 1 that can monitor solar hot water heaters and photovoltaics.
There’s already some monitoring technology on the market — Fat Spaniel has been a leader in the solar monitoring space — but SunReports is focusing on the residential market, looking to sell to its device (which is about the size of an Internet modem) to residential solar installers and home owners. SunReports CEO Thomas Dinkel is actually a former Fat Spaniel exec.
3). Twin Creeks: Twin Creeks is another stealthy solar startup that has been shielding its technology, though Greentech Media has an article on the company this week that suggests the company might be coming out of stealth soon. Like Solyndra before it, Twin Creeks has raised a lot of funding — $65 million — to still be in stealth, but as Greentech Media points out the company will have to start talking soon as it’s investing $175 million into a solar panel plant in Senatobia, Miss., that will ultimately employ 512 workers. The company is backed by Crosslink Capital and DAG Ventures.