This has been an interesting few months for the CIGS solar community. VC-funded CIGS startup Solyndra filed for their IPO late last year and last week received a "going concern" warning. Martin Roscheisen, the tight-lipped CEO of Nanosolar, remained tight-lipped as he lost his CEO position to a solar newcomer. And SoloPower raised some money, partly to pay off their irate CEO and CTO founders in an edgy VC investor-founder tussle.
Almost every CIGS firm has experienced schedule delays, personnel shake-ups, or massive re-working of processes and technological approaches.
The bottom line is that building CIGS solar cells is hard (and VCs are less than patient). The first wave of CIGS aspirants have been big on hype but less convincing in scaling up at a profitable market price. Solar still comes down to dollar per watt in what is (arguably) a commoditized market place.
Entering this scenario are some new CIGS players in what can be described as CIGS 2.0. This approach involves getting to manufacturing scale and low product cost with a capital-efficient model and innovative business plan, not the brute force, build-a-$1-billion-factory-from-scratch method.
One of these new CIGS players is AQT -- Applied Quantum Technologies. The firm made several partnering and funding announcements today.
AQT raised $10 million from the original investor syndicate, STPV Holdings and additional undisclosed investors. They previously raised $4.75 million in 2007 and the firm has managed to get pretty far on that relatively modest sum. They've produced CIGS materials at a NREL-validated efficiency of greater than 10 percent. It has taken most of the other CIGS players several years to reach that efficiency milestone.
The partnering deal is with Intevac, which will provide AQT with manufacturing capacity for the production of AQT’s CIGS cells. AQT plans to receive its first manufacturing system in the second quarter of this year at its Silicon Valley R&D and production facility.
The Intevac equipment and the AQT staff have a hard disk drive pedigree and look to apply these HDD skills to solar. (Not the first time that's been tried -- see MiaSolé and XsunX.)
“This agreement with Intevac is a major step towards capitalizing on AQT’s breakthrough CIGS 2.0 approach,” said Michael Bartholomeusz, AQT's CEO. AQT deploys a proprietary process on Intevac's manufacturing platforms with the aim of producing high-performance, low-cost CIGS thin-film PV cells. AQT’s CIGS technology allows for continuous in-line manufacturing, which simplifies and streamlines the manufacturing process.
In April, AQT will build out an initial 15MW production line at its new Silicon Valley development and manufacturing location.
So what is the fifteen-person AQT doing that the other the other generously-funded and highly-hyped players have missed?
- They are focusing on building solar cells, not manufacturing equipment
- They are using pre-existing high-volume manufacturing equipment
- They look to ramp up in 15-megawatt to 20-megawatt modular increments, not biting off 50MW-100MW chunks like other CIGS players
- AQT uses a dry reactive sputtering process
The firm was founded by the brothers Bartholomeusz, Brian and Michael, who seem to get along pretty well for brothers –- more Orville and Wilbur than Cain and Abel. The team has manufacturing and materials experience from their days at Moser Baer and Heraeus.
AQT has lined up a customer who plans to assemble AQT's solar cells into panels for an installation in Mexico.
In the words of founder Brian Bartholomeusz, "AQT has developed and is executing on a very broad, pragmatic business model that is based on innovation and leverage. Even at this early stage with minuscule funding and a tiny team we have put in place all the building blocks for our future development: manufacturing partners, strategic suppliers, bankability, customers, and sales channels."
List of VC funded thin film firms: