The Five Start-Ups and Mid-Size Companies of 2016 Driving Evolution of Photovoltaics

The maturation and scale of the silicon photovoltaic industry have resulted in a decline in attention from corporate and venture funding for solar-related start-ups. Mercom Capital reports a tepid $1.7 billion in corporate funding, a year-on-year drop of 71%, and $174 million in venture funding – a quarter-on-quarter drop of 57%. The drying up of available funding has led to a fairly sparse landscape of solar start-ups with a handful of remaining companies developing innovative technologies in each area of the solar taxonomy. While the quantity of start-ups has decreased as low-cost crystalline silicon panels pour out of China, the potential impact of those that remain could still prove to be as dramatic a disruptor to the solar industry as solar is to the broader power industry. In this light, Lux Research has determined five solar start-ups we spoke with this year that have achieved the most progress:

1366 Technologies: Positive ([kerfless wafering] client registration required):

1366 has gathered full-steam momentum in its introduction of its kerfless wafering process for multicrystalline wafers, signing a 700 MW supply agreement with Hanqha Q Cells (client registration required) and receiving a large equity investment from polysilicon producer Wacker Chemie (client registration required). These developments will accelerate the impact of kerfless wafering on module costs (client registration required).

Enki Technology: Wait and See ([durable anti-reflective coating] client registration required):

Previously a supplier of its anti-reflective coating to Yingli, the most innovative Chinese crystalline silicon manufacturer will no longer be differentiating its panels using Enki’s technology. In an unannounced exit, the company was acquired by First Solar in Q4 2016. The improved durability of its coatings will specifically benefit First Solar who sees significant demand from the Middle East, where desert conditions can erode the coating.

GaN Systems: Positive ([wide-band gap semiconductors] client registration required):

The leader in gallium-nitride-on-silicon transistors, the company’s technology was used by the winner of Google’s Little Box challenge – a competition to create the smallest kW-scale inverter possible with a power density of at least 50 W/in3. The winner was a clear demonstration of the cost reduction potential for inverters using GaN transistors. Through reduced packaging and components, the inverter’s cost will drop while the potential for a longer lifetime could lead to reduced LCOE.

Heliatek: Wait and See ([bulk heterojunction organic photovoltaics] client registration required):

One of the few remaining developers of organic photovoltaics, Heliatek closed a Series D round of €80 million (client registration required), positing that OPV still has relevance. The company has continued to deploy pilot projects to demonstrate the reliability and performance of its technology in various building-integrated applications. While numerous small players have attempted to drive the BIPV market, Heliatek has positioned itself to be the first to make a significant impact with its impressive number of construction material manufacturer partners.

Oxford PV: Positive ([perovskite-silicon tandem cells] client registration required):

With a handful of start-ups (client registration required) pursuing first-to-market commercialization of perovskites, Oxford PV has pulled ahead of the pack at the end of 2016, closing two rounds of Series C at £16.8 million. Purchasing Bosch Solar’s old CIGS facility, the company intends to develop a pilot-line of its tandem cells, from which it will begin moving towards commercialization in collaboration with a cell and module manufacturer through a joint development agreement. While Oxford PV’s partner has not been disclosed, it is likely to be Trina, which has been funding perovskite research at the University of Southern Wales in Australia.

Each of these developments highlights long-term trends likely to have an impact as the solar industry continues to evolve. 1366 Technologies demonstrates the cost-reduction potential through simplification of the silicon supply chain, targeting module-level $/W reduction; First Solar via Enki Technology aims to extend ARC longevity, increasing the lifetime of its performance boost (client registration required) and driving down $/kWh costs; GaN Systems – through its inverter customers – is showing how new inverter architecture can contribute to lower system costs. While these trends continue to converge to bring photovoltaics more in competition with conventional generation sources, Heliatek is attempting to open a new market while Oxford PV is moving towards breaking the silicon efficiency barrier.

Lux Research will continue to monitor these major trends in 2017 as these companies continue to progress and as new players enter. However, readers can act now to influence and invest in these trends. Readers with stakes in silicon manufacturing can gain from contributing to 1366’s expansion, or explore investment in companies pursuing kerfless monocrystalline fabrication. Meanwhile, chemicals and materials companies should collaborate with Heliatek and Oxford PV to optimize encapsulation and metallization products for these unique technologies. Utilities – already seeing significant PV penetration – can expect PV to become only more competitive and lead in reducing system costs and pioneering BIPV deployment.

By: Tyler Ogden