Solar startup Solexant's CEO Damoder Reddy was on a panel I moderated last week. Solexant is still in stealth mode. Which makes me wonder why the heck the CEO agreed to appear on the panel at all, since he had very few specifics to offer.
Bloom Energy's recent epic unveiling raises the question of the value of a startup being in stealth mode to begin with.
Eric Ries says, “If a startup can’t innovate faster than a much larger competitor, stealth isn’t going to make the difference -- they’re toast."
Guy Kawasaki has a rule of thumb: "The more a company believes they must be secretive, the less they have."
Kawasaki continues: What’s going on in the entrepreneur’s brain? “My idea is so astounding that if people just hear it, they will drop everything and implement it.” What’s going on in the venture capitalist’s brain? “Why did I agree to this meeting?” Bottom line: if merely hearing about your idea renders it defenseless, you don’t have a defensible idea.
Vivek Wadha has this to say on his blog at Techcrunch: "Stealth startups, get over yourselves, nobody cares about your secrets."
Wadha continues: Learning what a customer needs is an iterative process. You try something, get feedback. Both you and your customer learn more and you try again. You keep doing this until you have something which is so compelling that the customer will pay money to have it -- that’s when you know you have a killer product. But you can’t get feedback if you’re in stealth. You only have yourself to talk to.
There is certainly a role for secrecy in the innovator and startup world. But at a certain point, is there any value to concealing your idea? And in expending so much energy to keep it under wraps?
Here's an incomplete list of solar firms in stealth mode. Hopefully they will be able to emerge from stealth prior to going out of business.
Solexant was founded in 2006 by Dr. Damoder Reddy along with Prof. Paul Alivisatos of U.C. Berkeley, Prof. Paras Prasad of SUNY Buffalo and Prof. Sue Carter of U.C. Santa Cruz. Solexant's CFO, James McNicholas, VP of Engineering, Craig Leidholm, and VP of Product development, Paul Adriani all served at semi-stealthy Nanosolar prior to joining Solexant. The firm has received more than $20 million in venture funding from X/Seed Capital, Trident Capital, Medley Partners and Firelake Capital.
While on my panel last week, the CEO claimed that they endeavor not to depend on government subsidies to be competitive and are targeting a fifty cent per watt cost and a sales price of one dollar per watt. Reddy disclosed that the forty-plus employee firm is working with inorganic nanocrystals on a flexible roll-to-roll substrate and that their end-product is solar panels, not cells.
Which sounds like they are aiming to be Nanosolar II, although Solexant's patent applications cover a wide range of technologies and materials.
The firm received about $3 million in DOE incubator money in late 2008 with this description:
Solexel plans on commercializing a disruptive, 3D, high efficiency mono-crystalline silicon cell technology, while dramatically reducing manufacturing cost per watt. At the end of this project, Solexel plans to deliver a 17%-19% efficient, 156x156 mm2, single-crystal cell that consumes substantially lower silicon per watt than conventionally sliced wafers. Solexel aspires to be a GW scale PV producer within five years.
Descriptions of their technology seem to have a MEMS component in the fabrication process as they attempt to integrate mechanical features and microelectronics on a silicon surface.
With funding from Kleiner Perkins and Technology Partners, Solexel has more than 60 employees (according to LinkedIn). At one point John Denniston of KP was involved with the firm, but now Wen Hsieh is the KP partner associated with the startup, according to the KP website.
Solexel has licensed Porous-Silicon-Process (PSI process) technology from the Max Planck Society.
Here are some tidbits from various sources:
Alta Devices is developing solar cells that are up to 30% efficient at a module cost below 50 cents per watt. Alta's solar cells are based on high-efficiency compound-semiconductor materials and proprietary manufacturing equipment used to grow thin-film solar cells. The technology is compatible with both rigid modules and roll-to-roll processing.
Alta is funded by venture firms Kleiner Perkins, Caufield & Byers (Bill Joy), August Capital (Andy Rappaport), Crosslink Capital (Alain Harrus), New Enterprise Associates (Forest Baskett) and Technology Partners (Ira Ehrenpreis), with a $2 million Series B financing concluded 4/1/09.
Alta Devices received $3 million in funding from NREL as part of the DOE's Photovoltaic Incubator Program "to support the development of early stage solar energy technologies and help them advance to full commercial scale," as per the DOE website. According to the DOE announcement, Alta Devices will focus efforts on developing an innovative high-efficiency (>20%), low-cost compound-semiconductor photovoltaic module, with market entry expected in 2011.
Michael Kanellos delved a bit into the stealth firm here.
Harry Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Material Science at Caltech, is one of Alta's founders, along with photonic crystal-inventor Eli Yablonovich. Atwater’s group investigates silicon but also group IV materials such as germanium, as well as lattice and strained structures. Alta employees include senior scientist Gregg Higashi, formerly at Applied Materials and Intel. Stewart Sonnenfeldt was the company's founding CEO.
Stion (f.k.a. NStructures) received a $6 million first round in 2006 and a $15 million second round in 2007 from Khosla Ventures, Braemar Energy Ventures, Moser Baer PV, General Catalyst and Lightspeed Venture Partners. Stion is a high-efficiency thin film startup using unnamed materials that are deposited in a vacuum, in a process based on the work of Dr. Howard Lee.
Early news out of the company claimed that its solar cells had theoretical efficiencies of nearly 20 percent, that it’s an inorganic material capable of making multi-junction cells, and that the company plans to eschew new equipment in favor of high-volume, low-cost deposition technologies already on the market. The CEO is ex-Shell Solar honcho Chet Ferris.
At points in the past, the firm said that it was materials-agnostic. But what exactly is it? Who knows. the company has denied its cell is a CIGS cell, a cad tel cell and other materials. Some of Lee's early work points to quantum dots, but insiders have denied that too.
There are other stealth solar firms out there. Maybe so stealthy that they have not yet let themselves be known. The question remains -- how practical a strategy is stealth mode for solar startups?