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Solar concentrator start-up nets $25 million fund

California-based SolFocus scoops cash for equity and secures a long-term supply of triple-junction solar cells based on compound semiconductors.

SolFocus, a start-up company based at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) near San Francisco, has agreed a $25 million equity deal that will secure a supply of multi-junction solar cells.

The deal with New Enterprise Associates (NEA) and seed investors NGEN Partners and Yellowstone Capital is part of a series A financing round that SolFocus hopes to close at $32 million.

"The strong financial support and world-class team at NEA will allow us to rapidly build out our 10 MW pilot production line," said SolFocus CEO Gary Conley. Conley's technology is based on mirrors that concentrate sunlight onto tiny triple-junction solar cells that are based on compound materials.

As well as guaranteeing a long-term supply of the high-efficiency cells, which employ GaAs alloys and germanium substrates, the cash will be used to expand the SolFocus team, accelerate reliability testing, and enable pilot production to begin.

That team will now include technical expertise from Bell Laboratories legend and Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who joins as part of the company's technical advisory board.

Penzias was a key member of the research team that discovered the cosmic microwave background "“ a hugely significant scientific breakthrough that confirmed the Big Bang theory of the Universe.

The equity deal is yet another sign that the photovoltaics business is looking away from silicon and towards compound semiconductors as a key technology for utility-scale, high-efficiency solar power.

Compound cells had previously been used exclusively in satellite power applications, but the shortage of polysilicon material and the efficiency limits of silicon-based solar panels means that commercial terrestrial applications are now a very real possibility.

Emcore sees terrestrial solar power as an increasingly crucial part of its own business, as evidenced by the recent signing of a number of supply deals for its multi-junction cells (see related stories).

SolFocus says that its triple-junction supply deal is the "largest to date" in the concentrator photovoltaics industry. It will support a series of field tests and the company's first phase of active deployments through 2007.

SolFocus is in the process of hiring technologists for a wide variety of roles within the start-up. "We are hiring scientists and engineers from the semiconductor, automotive, lighting and projection display industries," said Conley.

Earlier this year, PARC and SolFocus agreed a deal under which PARC will supply core intellectual property and technological support in exchange for royalties and equity in the company.

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