Whatever else one can say about organic solar cell aspirant Konarka, the startup was amazingly skillful at raising money.
But that streak has ended.
We had heard from a number of credible sources that the company was in trouble, having difficulty raising more financing, and flirting with some type of protection from creditors. We had made a number of inquiries with the CEO, Howard Berke, as well as board members, staff members, and the firm's PR agency, but all parties were unresponsive.
We have just learned that Konarka has filed for bankruptcy protection under chapter 7 of the federal bankruptcy laws, according to a release. The company’s operations will cease, and now a trustee will liquidate the company’s assets for the benefit of creditors.
Konarka has raised more than $150M in angel funding, venture capital, strategic investment and private equity money raised since 2001. Throw in at least $10 million more in DARPA, DOE, NSF, U.S. Army, bank loans and credit lines in the last ten years. Investors over the years include Chevron, Good Energies, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Konica Minolta, Total, NEA, The Massachusetts Green Energy Fund, Vanguard Ventures, Mackenzie Financial, Partech, and many more.
Konarka was headquartered in Lowell, Mass. and had a manufacturing facility in New Bedford, Mass., with European headquarters in Nuremberg, Germany, business development offices in Asia, and a research and development facility in Austria. That sounds like a healthy burn rate. Konarka was founded in 2001 by scientists at UMass Lowell.
I have spoken to a few of those early investors about their investment in Konarka. One comment, off-the-record, was unprintable; another comment, made anonymously, was that the investor had no idea at the time of investment that First Solar would hit the numbers on cost and efficiency that they have. This anonymous commenter also added that Konarka was in a sort of limbo of commercial production capability but no production demand -- in essence, that their low efficiency nets out in no incentive for mainstream market adoption.
Low efficiency and difficulty in achieving long lifetimes leave OSCs to go after niche markets like consumer wearables and luggage. The ten-year-old startup had also mentioned tents, awnings and BIPV as possible end-markets. These applications could result in real business, but it seems difficult to get to serious mega-wattage -- and difficult to justify as a VC-funded firm.
Other organic and third-generation solar cell developers include Plextronics in the organic photovoltaics field, and Dyesol, EPFL, G24i, Mitsubishi and Peccell on the dye-sensitized-cells front.
One of the appeals of third-generation thin-film solar cells is that they can be manufactured using solution-based, low-temperature, roll-to-roll manufacturing methods, which use conventional printing techniques on flexible substrates. That is the sirens' call that has kept the VC money flowing.
And in a bit of Solyndra-tinged irony, Konarka had even attracted the winner-picking Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, whose administration had provided a $1.5 million state loan for the Lowell, Mass.- based firm from a $15 million green-energy fund that the candidate hoped "can become a major economic springboard in the renewable energy sector," according to a news release at the time.
My VCs gave me $150 million and all they got was this Sunbag.