Solar Startup Alta Devices Raises $72M, Hints At Tech


Solar startup Alta Devices has raised a whopping $72 million from investors, the company announced on Wednesday. While Alta Devices has been on our radar for months — particularly because it’s drawn high profile investors from Kleiner Perkins to GE to NEA — it’s still somewhat unclear exactly what Alta Devices’ solar innovation is, but in the funding announcement it gave a few hints on what it’s working on.

The $72 million round comes from a long list of investors including returning backers Kleiner Perkins, August Capital, Crosslink Capital, DAG Ventures, NEA, Presidio Ventures, Technology Partners, and Dow Chemical.  New investors are Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo), Good Energies, and Energy Technology Ventures — the joint venture involving GE, ConocoPhilips and NRG Energy — and Constellation Energy.

Alta Devices says in the release this morning that it’s focused on developing production and manufacturing technologies that can reduce the cost of high efficiency solar PV. Alta Devices CEO Christopher Norris hinted in the release that “There are a number of advanced materials that could demonstrate higher solar conversion efficiency than silicon.”

Alta Devices investor and board member Bill Joy said in the release that one technology it’s working on is called “epitaxial lift off’,” which he says will “enable efficient use of very thin layers of gallium arsenide for solar PV applications.”

According to a job posting last year Alta Devices is aiming for nothing short of “the world’s highest-efficiency/lowest-cost solar modules.” Solar cells (and processes to make them) under development at the company are said to deliver up to 30 percent efficiency at a module cost of less than 50 cents per watt, thanks to “high efficiency compound semiconductor materials and proprietary manufacturing equipment to grow thin-film solar cells.”

According to a patent application, Alta has developed a photovoltaic device that has a “significantly thin absorber layer:” less than 500 nanometers (half a micrometer) thick, compared to several micrometers for conventional solar cells. The thin layer can improve efficiency and flexibility, and according to the filing, “As long as the absorber layer is able to trap light, the efficiency increases as the thickness of the absorber layer is decreased.”

Along with fund-raising comes growth. Alta has clearly begun to expand its staff and has been looking to rack up a pile of patent applications. According to the July job posting last year, Alta had 55 employees and had filed for 35 patents, up from just 24 employees and 23 patent filings noted in a similar posting the previous year.

The company was founded by Harry Atwater of Caltech and Eli Yablonovitch of UC Berkeley, is headed up by Norris (a longtime Cypress Semiconductor executive), and now includes a group of scientists and engineers who spent time at Lucent Technologies, Applied Materials, Bell Labs, Intel, and other semiconductor giants.

The DOE awarded Alta $3 million under its Photovoltaic Technology Incubator Program, and according to the DOE’s description of Alta’s project, Alta is looking to enter the market with its solar technology in 2011. The DOE grant is meant to help a company transition prototype and pre-commercial photovoltaic technologies into pilot and full-scale manufacturing.

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Image courtesy of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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