1366 Technologies adds $18M in pursuit of cheaper silicon solar cells

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1366 Technologies, a Massachusetts firm in pursuit of low-cost silicon solar cells, just added $18 million in funding from Breakthrough Energy Ventures and other investors.

1366 was founded in 2008 and is one of the few VC-funded solar companies of that vintage to still be standing.

Over the years the company has raised more than $140 million from investors including Tokuyama, North Bridge, Polaris, VantagePoint, Energy Technology Ventures, Hanwha Chemical, Ventizz Capital and Haiyin Capital. 1366 has won several million dollars in DOE grants and has withdrawn from a $150 million loan guarantee offer from the DOE’s 1705 program.

The company’s technology falls in the kerfless wafer category, a technology of special interest to the DOE in days of yore.

Silicon goes kerfless

Kerfless wafer production does not require silicon ingots to be sawn into wafers, a time-consuming process which wastes material as silicon dust. Instead, 1366’s technology forms wafers directly, using molten silicon.

Startups such as Twin Creeks and SiGen attempted to manufacture kerfless silicon using ion-implantation. Crystal Solar and Ampulse were working gas-to-wafer technology. These companies have not succeeded, while 1366 is still around.

“I’ve never doubted silicon,” said Frank van Mierlo in an earlier interview. “We really believed in it. The learning curve had been holding steady for 45 years — it’s a pretty predicable line. Why would that stop?”

Low costs and big solar partners

1366 claims that its  technology is capable of achieving “a bottom up cost of just $0.19” per wafer with furnaces capable of producing multiple wafers at a time to drive the cost “below $0.15 per wafer piece.”

As pv magazine reported earlier this year, 1366 Technologies worked with Hanwha Q Cells and also partnered with German polysilicon manufacturer Wacker Chemie.

Van Mierlo has likened the 1366 innovation in silicon to the Bessemer process innovation at U.S. Steel or the use of float glass at Pilkington. He notes that the Bessemer process was the result of a decades-long innovation path.

VC-funded startups require exits

1366’s longevity and commercial success is rare in the world of solar industry hardware startups. The CEO’s “very deliberate route to high-volume production” is what kept the company alive for the last 12 years.

Despite 1366’s deliberate progress, venture capital investors typically have expectations of financial exits in the form of IPO or acquisition — particularly with long-in-the-tooth startups like 1366 Technologies. The addition of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a venture firm with potentially longer time horizons, might change that exit math for 1366.