Solar startup MiaSole banks $55M, but needs more to scale

Solar thin film maker MiaSole is fighting for survival in a solar market that has seen many manufacturers shutter factories over the past year. The startup announced Wednesday that it’s raised $55 million to help it enter new markets and boost its sales staff, while it works on lining up more investors and partners in order to truly scale up its operation.
The Silicon Valley startup, backed by big VC firms such as Kleiner Perkins and VantagePoint Venture Partners, has been an interesting company to watch because it’s part of a tribe of solar startups that collectively have raised billions of dollars and stumbled along the way to commercialize a type of solar panel technology that uses the combo of materials, copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), to convert sunlight into electricity.
MiaSole declined to disclose how much venture capital it has raised since its inception in 2001, but published reports put the figure at somewhere between $400 million and $500 million before the latest round. The latest equity round came from primarily existing investors, said CEO John Carrington.
CIGS technology drew a lot of interest a couple years ago when silicon, which is found in most of the solar panels today, was expensive and commanded several hundred dollars per kilogram. CIGS solar panels are also called thin films because they use a thin layer of semiconductors to produce power, which is an approach that should cut material costs. But over production has since depressed the price of silicon price so much that nowadays it’s fetching below $30 per kilogram, reported Bloomberg recently. In addition, an oversupply of solar panels over the past year has forced many companies, from startups such as Solyndra to major players such as First Solar (s FSLR), to go bankrupt or shrink their operations significantly.
MiaSole and many fellow startup solar manufactures are trying to scale up production and cut costs during this difficult time. That means some of them need to roll out new and better products sooner than initially planned, or they need more money to build factories at a scale that makes it possible to significantly cut costs. Many investors of these startups have been willing to fork over money in the past year to keep the companies going while they re-worked long-term strategies. Nanosolar announced the arrival of a new CEO and a $20 million round since the start of this year. AQT Solar said it’s now working on a different type of thin film technology than CIGS.
Growing up
MiaSole has run into its fair share of technical development and other difficulties as it evolves from the R&D mode to mass production. It brought in Joseph Laia as its chief executive in 2007 to push its technology development – namely to figure out the right process to make more efficient thin films. It brought in experts from manufacturing giant Intel (s INTC) last year to improve the efficiency of manufacturing operations, such as tweaking equipment maintenance schedules and work shifts (the Intel experts are still around, Carrington said).
The company seemed to have finally nailed the manufacturing part of its operation, and it brought in Carrington, who was in charge of sales and marketing at First Solar, last November to go out and fight for customers’ attention. MiaSole is now making solar panels at an average efficiency of 14 percent, which is higher than what its rivals such as Nanosolar, Stion, HelioVolt and Solar Frontier, which stands out as the largest CIGS solar manufacture thanks to its new 900 MW factory.
MiaSole expects the average efficiency of its panels to hit 15 percent later this year, and at 14-15 percent, the startup’s solar panels are entering the efficiency territories of silicon solar panels out there. That means if it can sell its panels for less, than it’ll be a break out player. Prices for silicon solar panels have fallen to around $1 per watt over the past 12 months, though that price point has come largely because of the oversupply problem and is causing solar manufacturers to lose money. MiaSole’s production cost should hit $0.80 per watt sometime this year, Carrington said.
Still searching
The startup has been making solar panels by sandwiching CIGS thin films between glass, which protects CIGS from moisture and other environmental damage. This type of design is common in solar panels you see on rooftops today. MiaSole plans to start shipping thin films using other flexible materials for protecting the CIGS layer. These flexible thin films will be especially attractive for rooftops that can’t bear a lot of weight, and the company wants to sell the thin films to roofing companies.
What could stop MiaSole from growing as quickly as it wants is if it isn’t able to line up more investors or partners who not only can provide money but who have the deep sales and marketing experience to help MiaSole broaden its market reach. Carrington made a public appeal for these partners last December. The startup has 150 MW of annual production capacity (over 55 MW of MiaSole panels have been installed worldwide), and it won’t be able to grow much beyond that if it doesn’t find the right dance partner.
“I’m convinced that we will have a partnership done this year,” Carrington said. “I want a strategy similar to First Solar’s — I want to make sure we align with the strongest partners.”