September 19, 2011 / 6:20 PM / in 6 years

UPDATE 1-S.Korean co invests $50 mln in U.S. solar startup

* Funds will be used to expand operations globally

* Company will be hiring, though no numbers given (Adds interview with company founder, background, byline)

By Nichola Groom

Sept 19 (Reuters) - South Korean conglomerate SK Group said on Monday it has invested $50 million in U.S. solar start-up HelioVolt to help the company bring its next-generation solar panels to the mass market.

SK energy and technology units SK Innovation (096770.KS) and SK TIC will expand HelioVolt’s operations in Austin, Texas, and develop its “global capabilities,” the companies said in a joint statement.

“We believe in the value of long-term investing in alternative energy,” SK TIC Chief Executive SH Park said.

For HelioVolt, the backing of SK will give it critical clout in the marketplace, including in securing financing and dealing with equipment suppliers.

“It’s a lot different negotiating alongside a company like SK than it is negotiating ourselves,” HelioVolt Founder and Chairman B.J. Stanbery said in an interview.

HelioVolt is one of a handful of venture capital-backed companies that make photovoltaic solar panels out of copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) rather than traditional polysilicon.

Other venture-backed manufacturers of CIGS panels include Miasole, Nanosolar, and, most notably, Solyndra. Solyndra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month after using a controversial $535 million government loan guarantee to expand its manufacturing. The company is now seeking a buyer.

Surviving CIGS companies are rapidly working to increase production to compete with silicon-based panels, prices of which have fallen dramatically this year.

“There are a lot of claims being made by a lot of start-ups in thin film PV sector,” he said. “For a company like SK, it’s a bit of a buyer’s market.”

HelioVolt, Stanbery pointed out, has raised far less capital than some other CIGS start-ups -- including Solyndra. The company put itself up for sale earlier this year because it decided it needed a partner with the capital to take the company through to commercial scale.

HelioVolt has raised about $200 million from venture firms, compared with around $400 million each for Miasole and Nanosolar and about $1 billion for Solyndra.

Production levels at HelioVolt’s Austin facility are tiny and it plans to open a new factory to ramp up manufacturing. The location of its second facility, however, has yet to be determined, according to Stanbery.

The company will be hiring in Austin as it expands operations at its headquarters there, it said.

HelioVolt’s investors include New Enterprise Associates, Paladin Capital Group, Masdar, Passport Capital, Yellowstone Capital, Morgan Stanley (MS.N) and Noventi Ventures.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch Corp (BAC.N) advised HelioVolt on the deal. (Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; editing by Andre Grenon and Maureen Bavdek)

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