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Aiming for the Sun

A solar-cell startup wants to prove it can manufacture thin-film panels that are cheaper, lighter, and longer lasting.
June 15, 2005

Company: Nanosolar

HQ:  Palo Alto, CA

Founded: 2002

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.


Online Advertising Is on a Roll

Advertising is dead. Long live advertising. Rich media ad delivery companies are all the rage for traditional media outlets… and other alarm:clock news from the land of private venture funding.

When news emerged that old-media newspaper giant Gannett had reportedly paid upwards of $100 million for a small new-media online advertising firm – Fort Washington, PA-based PointRoll – many media sources scrambled to learn about the latter company.

PointRoll sells advertising delivery technology to both advertisers and agencies that take advantage of rich media. Indeed, if you spend any time on the Web, you’ve probably come across their technology without knowing it. For instance, their Badboy is an online ad that floats across computer screens for a set period of time, then disappears. With billions being spent on online advertising, small improvements in ad performances are rewarded. And PointRolls’ products in ad campaigns have generated higher click-through rates based on industry benchmarks. Like many other online advertising space peddlers, PointRoll was bootstrapped (in 2000) and has grown on its own profits. The company claims revenue growth of 163 percent last year and projected revenue gaining of at least 125 percent in 2005.

In another recent noteworthy online advertising move, the New York Times Company, The Tribune Company, and Knight-Ridder bought a majority stake (for an undisclosed sum) in tiny Although the three newspaper giants already have a huge share of print and online ad activity, Mountain View, CA-based, founded in 2002, was doing something that caught their attention. It was culling news from thousands of sources and organizing it into categories such as “New Movies” or “St. Louis Cardinals.” Of particular interest to Topix’s new investors is the company’s ability to deliver local news. If a user submits a zip code, Topix continually offers weather, sports, local politics, and the like  to areas as small as La Porte, Indiana. Now a hardware store in La Porte, which doesn’t want to spend money promoting its goods throughout the state, can advertise locally via Topix.

Given that online advertising has solidly emerged from its slump – Merrill Lynch recently predicted that revenues for the sector will grow by 29 percent in 2005, to $12.4 billion, while print advertising appears on the decline – many companies will thrive in this sector, and other little-known gems will strike big deals and grab headlines.

Jon Burke is a technology writer based in San Francisco.

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