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The obituaries for thin film solar startup HelioVolt were written about a year ago, when the thirteen-year-old company — after over $200 million in funding and no major sales deals — finally said it had halted manufacturing at its factory in Austin, Texas, and was doing layoffs. Now on Tuesday, a company that organizes auctions, Silicon Valley Disposition, said it will hold an auction on Wednesday and Thursday for all of HelioVolt’s assets at its factory.
HelioVolt will be selling off all of its solar panel manufacturing equipment like sputtering tools, laminators, ovens, factory robots, sensing and cleaning systems and office equipment (even the coffee maker). Interested parties can also buy the entire lot, and if that bid is accepted, it will override individual asset sales.
HelioVolt developed solar panels that use an ultra-thin layer of semiconductor material from the mixture copper-indium-gallium-selenide (or CIGS) to convert sunlight into electricity. The majority of the solar panels on the market today use a much thicker layer of silicon semiconductor to do the electricity conversion. The founder of HelioVolt, BJ Stanbery — who we first interviewed back in 2007 — got into CIGS back in the 1980’s and invented the CIGS manufacturing process that HelioVolt used in 2001.
Many venture-backed startups, as well as big companies, have worked on making CIGS panels over the years, betting that if the thinner semiconductor material could be used (so it’s less expensive) and if/when silicon prices rise, CIGS would be cheaper. Well, instead of rising, the price of silicon solar panels has actually dropped dramatically over the past several years, in essence halting most of the potential cost benefits of CIGS panels for the time being.
High profile CIGS flame-outs include Solyndra, MiaSole, and Nanosolar. Billions of dollars of venture capital funding went into CIGS companies. However, down the road, CIGS panels could still play an important role for more flexible, thinner solar panels. Japanese company Solar Frontier has been one of the only ones producing CIGS panels at any kind of scale.
Even as HelioVolt struggled along with the other CIGS makers, it held on for a long, long time. In late 2011, Korean giant SK Group showed an interest in the company and made a $50 million investment. And in 2012, HelioVolt was still plodding along with small pilot installations in Austin.
But in early 2014, according to local reports, SK Group pulled any more support for the company, and HelioVolt started looking for an acquirer or other investment. Clearly Stanbery didn’t find the deal he wanted and now the company’s technology might have to live on piecemeal at other companies.