HQ: Palo Alto, CA
Management: CEO Martin Roscheisen received advanced engineering degrees from both Stanford University and Munich Technical University and a doctorate from Stanford University’s School of Engineering, where he cofounded FindLaw, an online provider of legal information. His next two startups, eGroups and TradingDynamics, were acquired for slightly less than $1.2 billion. Chris Eberspacher, vice president of engineering, was head of research and development for ARCO Solar/Siemens Solar Industries, one of the world’s largest photovoltaics company (now Shell Solar).
Investors: The company just raised $20 million Series B from a group of investors led by Mohr, Davidow Ventures. Original investors include U.S. Venture Partners, Benchmark Capital, and Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. In addition to venture capital money, Nanosolar cut a $10.3 million deal last August as one of four contractors for an undisclosed project with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Business Model: According to Nanosolar, solar electricity today remains around three times more expensive than electrical grid power. Nanosolar’s technology gains efficiency by optimizing power-conversion performance, product cost, and product lifetime, as well as lower installation costs. The company has developed a proprietary technology to create cost-efficient solar panels. Whereas most current solar cells use traditional silicon semiconductors and are costly to manufacture, Nanosolar’s “thin-film” approach would replace today’s fragile, vacuum-based silicon materials with a roll-printed process that covers a substrate of nanostructured materials with a solution. As a result, Nanosolar claims it can manufacture 100 feet of cheap, flexible material in the same time that it takes to manufacture 1-2 feet of traditional solar paneling.
The company has not divulged much about how its business model will differ from the traditional solar equipment business. It has a number of possible target markets, though, and initially will focus on high-end, commercial projects, such as large buildings.
Competitors: Miasole, Konarka, and Nanosys
Dirt: Nanosolar points out that, although much progress has been made on improving solar cells, since their introduction in the 1950s, most current technologies are still too expensive to be deployed on a large scale. Indeed, solar power represents only a tiny fraction of energy in both the United States and world – and if it were not for tax breaks, it would be even less significant.
Nevertheless, broad trends are working in the company’s favor, including current higher energy costs and political interest in alternative energy, as both a counter-balance to an over-reliance on the Middle-Eastern oil and a solution for global warming. The company is testing its solar panels on three commercial customer sites in California this year, to prove that it can deliver the efficiencies it’s touting. A larger roll-out is not expected until 2006.
Not surprisingly, Nanosolar isn’t the only player in the field – in fact, it’s catching up with competitors Nanosys and Konarka. But the company should benefit from the brainpower of its development partners, who have contributed research on a variety of fronts, from materials sciences to semiconductors. They include Stanford University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories at University of California at Berkeley, and Sandia National Laboratories, which acquired an equity sake in Nanosolar. Nanosolar currently holds 42 patents, a number of them acquired from its development partners.