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Solar startup Sunpreme raises $50M, heads to China

UPDATED: China has been the epicenter of its own solar manufacturing industry for years but the country has more recently become a destination for U.S. startups setting up their first manufacturing bases in the country as well. A solar cell maker called Sunpreme announced Monday that it’s raised roughly $50 million in a series B round and is now building a factory in Jiaxing, China.

Sunpreme, founded in 2009, has kept a low profile until now. The company completed the development of its solar cell technology at its research and development center in its California headquarters in Sunnyvale and in Shanghai, and is now moving into commercial production, according to company spokesman Jeff Lettes.

So what is Sunpreme’s technology, which it claims will deliver “high-efficiency solar photovoltaic panels at lower cost”? It’s largely a mystery at this point. The company briefly describes the technology as having something to do with a nano-scale device on some type of silicon. The company mentions it’s using metallurgical silicon, which is not as pure as the silicon commonly used to produce solar cells today. There are companies that purify metallurgical silicon to make it suitable for solar cell production.

UPDATE: Sunpreme’s co-founder and CEO, Ashok Sinha, said in an email that the company is using metallurgical silicon because it’s cheaper than the conventional, purer silicon. The metallurgical silicon forms the base layer of the cell. “To activate the MG-Silicon, we create an innovative, low cost, high efficiency device structure by depositing an ultra thin film stack on top of it for a tenth of the cost of conventional thin film solar technology,” Sinha wrote.

Sunpreme says it is using the new funding round to build a 30 MW solar cell factory near Shanghai, Lettes said. UPDATE: Commercial shipment will begin by the end of the year, said David Fried, co-founder and vice president of global operations and finance. The company will assemble the cells into solar panels for its customers, whose names Sunpreme has declined to divulge. Fried said Sunpreme could sell both solar panels and cells only in the future.

A 30 MW factory is small and hardly the size that would keep its rivals awake at night. Solar manufacturers nowadays consider 100 MW to be the hurdle to jump over to compete in scale. Many manufacturers today already have hundreds of megawatts if not gigawatts of factories. To compete, Sunpreme will have to deliver highly efficient solar cells at lower prices, and how it will achieve that remains to be seen. The company declined to disclose the efficiency figures for its cells.

China has become a magnet for U.S. startups, first because it’s such a large market with government policies and incentives that encourage cleantech production and consumption. In addition, as we pointed out in an earlier post, it also is now a significant source of capital, and startups are using that capital to set up manufacturing operations there. Fremont, Calif.-based Silevo, which emerged from stealth mode last week, has raised money from Chinese venture capital firms and is now building a factory in Hangzhou to produce a novel, hybrid-silicon solar panels. Silevo is targeting China and the U.S. as its initial markets.

Boston-Power, a lithium-ion battery maker, recently raised $125 million in venture capital and Chinese government incentives to move its manufacturing base to China, which has overtaken the United States as the largest car market in the world.

Aside from Sinha and Fried, Sunpreme has two other co-founders: Lie-Ping Lai, president of Sunpreme China, and general counsel Joseph Bach.

Investors of the latest funding round include International Finance Corp. (part of the World Bank Group), Capricorn Investment Group and China Environmental Fund III (managed by Tsing Capital in China). Lettes declined to disclose the amount of the first funding round that was led by Capricorn.

Photo courtesy of Sunpreme

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