The One Percent Solution: How Innovalight’s Silicon Ink Makes Solar Panels Slightly More Efficient, and Why That’s a Huge Deal

10/6/10Follow @wroush

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name them, Burke says. There’s so much business in China that in August, the company opened a sales office in the skyscraper-dotted Pudong district of Shanghai. “We are expanding our presence in China and need to be closer to our customers,” Boris Mathiszik, Innovalight’s vice president of worlwide sales, said at the time.

So was it a comedown for Innovalight to become, in effect, a supplier to China, which has quickly and quietly emerged as the world leader in solar manufacturing? To some extent, yes, Burke says. “When I brought that to our board and our investors in 2008, there was a little bit of anxiety or disappointment,” he says. “I think there was a somewhat romantic wish to be a solar panel manufacturing company ourselves. But very quickly, the investors and the board realized that the market was shifting fast—and then, of course, we had the economic crisis. So in fact, that was the right thing to do, and we did it very well, at exactly the right time.”

Even Burke’s earlier decision to invest in building a demonstration line had an unexpected payoff. The company now uses it to make solar cells for testing, to demonstrate that its silicon ink actually delivers the promised efficiency gains.

And the market still open to Innovalight isn’t exactly small. Photovoltaics is a $30 billion industry that’s been growing at 40 percent per year since 2003. When solar manufacturers see competitors like Yingli and JA Solar implementing low-cost improvements that make their solar cells 1 percent more efficient, they’ll be all but forced to invest in silicon ink themselves, Burke predicts. Which means Innovalight is on the path to profitability, he says, and likely won’t need another capital infusion. (The most recent fundraising round was in January 2010 and brought in $18 million. Leading that round were EDB Investments and Vertex Venture Holdings, both of Singapore; existing investors Apax Partners, Arch Venture Partners, Convexa Capital, Harris & Harris Group, Sevin Rosen Funds and Triton Ventures also joined.)

“We want our material on every silicon solar cell in the world, that is our goal,” Burke says. “But customers want to see yields and want to be convinced before they add a new step. That is a clear advantage we have, versus a lot of these other promising technologies. We have the capabilities right in this building to keep us ahead of the pack.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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