Alta Devices Hiring, Piling on Patent Apps

Alta Devices, a secretive thin-film solar startup backed by venture firms including Kleiner Perkins, Technology Partners and Crosslink Capital, has begun to expand its staff and rack up a pile of patent applications. According to a recent job posting for an executive position with the 3-year-old company, Alta now has 55 employees and has filed for 35 patents, up from just 24 employees and 23 patent filings noted in a similar posting last year.

Alta Devices has said in job postings that it’s aiming for nothing short of “the world’s highest efficiency/lowest cost solar modules.” Solar cells (and processes to make them) that are under development at the company are said to deliver up to 30 percent efficiency at a module cost of less than 50 cents per watt, thanks to “high efficiency compound semiconductor materials and proprietary manufacturing equipment to grow thin film solar cells.”

Founded by Harry Atwater of Caltech and Eli Yablonovitch of UC Berkeley, and headed up by Chris Norris (a longtime Cypress Semiconductor (s CY) executive), the Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup’s team now includes a group of scientists and engineers who spent time at Lucent Technologies, Applied Materials (s AMAT), Bell Labs, Intel (s INTC), and other semiconductor giants.

Senior scientists Gang He, Andreas Hegedus, Gregg Higashi and Isik Kizilyalli as well as Thomas Gmitter and Engineering Scientist Melissa Archer are listed as inventors on a number of patent applications filed in 2009 and published in the U.S. Patent & Trade Office database in recent months (many of them related to so-called epitaxial lift-off processing, which Yablonovitch has worked on for decades).

One of the most recent filings describes a photovoltaic device that has a “significantly thin absorber layer,” — less than 500 nanometers (half a micrometer) thick, compared to several micrometers for conventional solar cells. This is one key to improving efficiency and flexibility: “As long as the absorber layer is able to trap light,” the filing notes, “the efficiency increases as the thickness of the absorber layer is decreased.”

Alta Devices closed a Series B round for an undisclosed amount in April 2009, and it scored a Department of Energy grant for up to $3 million in January for work on low-cost, high-efficiency (more than 20 percent) photovoltaic modules with compound semiconductor materials.

Awarded under the DOE’s Photovoltaic Technology Incubator Program, the grant is meant to help a company transition prototype and pre-commercial photovoltaic technologies into pilot and full-scale manufacturing.

The full $3 million will only be disbursed to Alta over the course of 18 months (so, through next summer) if the company hits certain milestones. But at the rate Alta seems to be growing, and given the company’s plan for market entry in 2011 (according to the DOE project description), we wouldn’t be surprised to see Alta looking to raise a larger sum before too long.

Image courtesy of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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