DuPont Scoops Up “Silicon Ink” Maker Innovalight

One of the many tasks confronting the energy industry, if we’re to have any hope of sidestepping a climate catastrophe, is to dramatically increase the efficiency of photovoltaic cells, so that more of the sun’s energy can be converted into electricity. Sunnyvale, CA-based Innovalight has developed a material it calls “silicon ink” that’s helping in that regard—and solar panel manufacturers in China have been slurping it up. It’s such an attractive market that chemical giant DuPont (NYSE: DD) wants to get in. So it bought the company.

DuPont released the news this morning. The Wilmington, DE-based company’s materials are already used in about 70 percent of all photovoltaic panels manufactured around the world; for example, under the brand name Solamet, it makes the metal contact fingers that manufacturers place atop a photovoltaic panel’s crystalline silicon layer to collect the free electrons knocked loose by sunlight.

Innovalight’s silicon ink, which consists of tiny, extremely pure nanocrystals of silicon suspended in a solvent, is designed to be applied beneath those metal fingers; it gets into the crystalline silicon and acts as a doping agent, decreasing electrical resistance and allowing more electrons to make their way to the fingers. Which meant DuPont was already very familiar with the startup.

“DuPont has been working with Innovalight for four or five years from a supplier perspective, and in the last couple of years we’ve been growing closer together through product impact and business synergies,” says Rob Cockerill, the DuPont executive who has been named business manager of the new DuPont Innovalight division. “We’ve always been extremely impressed with Innovalight’s technology, so they were a natural fit for us in the photovoltaic space.”

DuPont didn’t disclose the terms of the acquisition, but it said that all 58 current Innovalight employees, including former CEO Conrad Burke (pictured above), will stay on, and that the division will remain headquartered in Sunnyvale. Burke has been named general manager of the division.

Innovalight was founded in 2002 but long struggled to find a viable market for its silicon nanocrystal technology. Its first foray, into the lighting industry, fizzled. Burke, a former Sevin Rosen partner, restarted the company in 2005 (as we explained in an October 2010 profile of Innovalight). At first he intended to remake the firm as a photovoltaic manufacturer, but after low-cost solar plants in in China gained a huge lead in solar manufacturing, Innovalight reinvented itself as a materials supplier. The company announced the first two customers for its technology, Baoding-based Yingli Solar and Shanghai-based JA Solar, in 2010. It has collected just over $60 million in venture funding over the years from a large group of investors including Apax Partners, Arch Venture Partners, Convexa Capital, EDB Investments, Harris & Harris Group, Leader Ventures, Sevin Rosen Funds, Silicon Valley Bank, Triton Ventures, and Vertex Venture Holdings.

As a part of DuPont, Innovalight will have much greater reach as it attempts to convince more panel makers to incorporate silicon ink into their manufacturing process, Burke says. “They are located, in terms of sales, marketing, and tech support, in all the key regions where our customers are,” Burke says. “The very large footprint that DuPont brings to the table is something we could only dream of building ourselves over a long period of time. Also, the unspoken message here is that this brings a lot of comfort to our customers—knowing we’ve got the backing of one of the giants in the industry.”

Cockerill says DuPont won’t immediately attempt to integrate the silicon ink technology into any of its own products. But he says there will be opportunities in the near future to tweak Innovalight’s material and the Solamet metallization technology in concert drive up panel efficiency. “One of the most interesting opportunities is that if you look at Innovalight’s roadmap for the next five, six, or seven generations, it’s an exact match to Solamet; they want to do the same things we do,” Cockerill says. “Together we believe we can make a huge impact with our customers.”

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

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