1366 Shakes Off Solar Industry Woes, Opens New Wafer Plant

1/31/13Follow @gthuang

Is this the only U.S. solar startup that’s actually doing well?

That might be an overstatement. But after the much-publicized failings of Solyndra and Evergreen Solar, one might wonder what’s keeping Bedford, MA-based 1366 Technologies afloat. And, more to the point, what’s to keep 1366 from suffering a similar fate down the road?

The answers come from Frank van Mierlo, the company’s CEO and co-founder (pictured above). As he explained to me yesterday from the site of 1366′s new manufacturing facility and headquarters, his company’s chief advantages are its technology, financing, and partnerships with big solar companies.

1366 owns a process for manufacturing silicon wafers used in solar cells that it says is faster, cheaper, and more efficient than conventional methods. Instead of four steps, it’s one step. It takes one-third the labor, capital, and consumables (supplies) cost, and yields twice the silicon, says van Mierlo.

That might sound too good to be true—but that’s why 1366 has just opened a $6 million, 42,000-square-foot demonstration plant in Bedford: to show the world that solar-cell wafers (see photo below) can be made at scale using the technique. “I sincerely believe this is by far the most cost-effective way of doing it,” van Mierlo says. “Making solar as cheap as coal is the way forward.”

Just as important is that 1366′s product is standardized—no new materials, for example—so that any solar-cell maker can use its wafers (whose energy efficiency has reached 17 percent), van Mierlo says. “We can stop at wafer making. We can ship it to any cell maker—we don’t have to beat those guys, we work with them,” he says. “We don’t aspire to be the best cell maker, or module maker, we aspire to supply the world’s best cell makers.”

And, in case you’re wondering, the global market for wafers alone is about $10 billion, he says.

1366 started in 2007-08, out of MIT, and it has raised some $47 million in venture funding from the likes of North Bridge Venture Partners, Polaris Ventures, Hanwha Chemical, and Ventizz Capital Fund. It also won a U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee of $150 million in 2011, which won’t kick in until the company is ready to expand its production to gigawatt scale (it’s currently in the megawatt range). “We’re only taking money after this plant is successful,” van Mierlo says.

The startup has at least three years of runway, he adds, and it has been cash-flow positive the past two years. The Bedford plant will employ about 100 people; 1366 currently has 43 employees and is hiring for engineers, technicians, and a purchasing manager.

I asked about the longer-term plan, especially in the wake of the big U.S. solar company failures. “We’re going to open and scale up this factory, make this hum,” van Mierlo says. “Ultimately I’ll need customers and further investments.” And he admits, “We’ve got to be cautious, we can’t get ahead of ourselves. There’s no money on luxury here.”

There is money at the end of the rainbow, though, and van Mierlo doesn’t sound terribly worried about the ongoing consolidation in solar. Indeed, if 1366 can blaze a trail and beat out its many competitors (mostly in Asia and Europe)—admittedly, a big if—it stands to emerge from what van Mierlo calls a “savage” industry where “very large players are making huge investments, driving this onslaught.”

“At the end of this, there are winners,” he says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-W-Hall/1723611491 Matthew W. Hall

    How will they keep the Chinese from stealing this?

    • jesper andersson

      Smart if unsexy to focus on backbone instead of flashiness