Miasole perhaps not so unhealthy after all — may get $200M investment

Miasole, the thin-film solar cell maker that is the third member of a triumvirate of heavily-funded CIGS startups including Heliovolt and Nanosolar, has been pretty quiet since losing its CEO and laying off 40 workers late last year. In the interim, there has been plenty of speculation that it was faltering, and might even close its doors.Not even close, according to a report this morning. Instead, Miasole is about to close a round of between $200 and $220 million, a source has told VentureWire — and, even better, the company will have a sky-high valuation of $1.2 billion. If true, the investment would be the largest single venture funding any solar company has received to date, although the reported valuation would be lower than Nanosolar’s.This raises some questions about what’s going on inside Miasole. Why would investors pour money into a company that, as recently as April, lost a high-profile contract to a rival? Miasole was supposed to be in full production mode by early last year, but slipped on the dates. It was also reportedly planning an IPO, but no more mention of that was made after early 2007.

Intelligent Energy raises $13.6M for hydrogen fuel cells

The latest fuel cell investment is a United Kingdom company called Intelligent Energy, which has taken $13.6 million toward development of hydrogen fuel cells to power vehicles and airplanes. According to the company’s release (via Earth2Tech ), it’s behind several existing products, including the Suzuki Crosscage fuel cell motorcycle, Peugeot Citroen’s H2Origin hybrid delivery vehicle, and a Boeing fuel-cell powered aircraft. Another project has Intelligent Energy partnered with Scottish & Southern Energy to provide energy from fuel cells to customers in the UK and Ireland. And in 2012, the company is slated to help London provide fuel cell taxis for the Olympics. Beyond transportation and mobile power, the company also plans to sell its cells to the oil and gas industry. No source for the funding was disclosed. Intelligent Energy is based in Loughborough, in central England, with offices in the United States, Israel, South Africa and Japan.

Playfish nabs $1M for social gaming

Casual gaming startup Playfish has raised $1 million on its way to full venture funding, following its $3 million seed raised earlier this year, according to VentureWire. Playfish is based in London, but is looking to raise money from Silicon Valley firms. The company took the bridge from Accel Partners to help it make contacts while continuing to develop new games. All of Playfish’s three games are based on Facebook, and include in-game advertising. It currently has about 6 million players and its games are played 100 million times each month, according to the website.

Motorola buys into industrial wireless with Apprion investment

Apprion, a Moffet Field, Calif. company that makes wireless integration systems for harsh environments like industrial plants, has raised a new round of funding led by a strategic investment from cellular giant Motorola. Plants are a little different from your standard wireless environment — temperature extremes, toxic chemicals and dangerous equipment are all par for the course, and the average worker isn’t exactly lugging around a laptop. That being the case, the requirements for networking are a bit different. Sensors, cameras, RFID tags and walkie-talkies all need to mesh together, which can be difficult if they’re all made by different companies. Like a Cisco for the manufacturing world, Apprion does the work of integrating different wireless applications together and providing centralized controls and visualization, providing a brain for the growing nervous systems of sensors and monitors scattered around modern foundries, pharmaceutical plants, refineries and other facilities. The opportunity to become the go-to company for Apprion’s kind of product isn’t small, according to CEO Mike Bradley. He says there are about 76,000 plants with 100 or more employees, the size at which they are likely to want networks in place. Systems for each of those plants range from $100,000 to $1 million dollars. A number of other companies are working on wireless equipment and sensors to go into industry, hospitals, businesses and even the growing, green sort of plants. Motorola itself makes communication equipment for construction and industry workers, including cell phones and walkie-talkies. However, there are relatively few companies working on tying all those pieces of equipment, including RFID sensors, together in a software interface. The exact size of the investment wasn’t disclosed, but Apprion raised $12 million in its first round, and has now taken a total of $23.5 million. Motorola led, and was joined by existing investors Chevron Technology Ventures, Anvil Investment Associates, Advanced Technology Ventures and Allegis Capital.

Agiliance raises $10M for corporate risk and compliance control

Agiliance, a San Jose, Calif. startup that offers IT tools to help companies comply with regulations and manage their risk, has raised a $10 million round of funding. In today’s complex regulatory environments, many companies are looking past finance officers and accountants to software that can help out. The growing space is known as IT governance, risk and compliance (GRC). We’ve recently reported other fundings for related companies: Mimosa, an electronic archiving startup, raised $17 million and is looking to have an IPO, and Vantos, which makes software for auditing and internal investigation, raised $10.6 million. The $10 million that Agiliance took was led by new investor Castile Ventures, with participation from Intel Capital, Walden International and Red Rock Ventures.

Iminlikewithyou raises $1.5M for social gaming site

Iminlikewithyou, a startup that began as something close to a dating site and has become closer to a casual game portal and social network over time, has raised a $1.5 million second round tor expansion. The New York-based company only features its own games on the site, and is based entirely in Flash. Co-founder Charles Forman has said that he based many of his ideas off South Korean sites. We’ve written more about the company as part of a longer piece on making casual games work.

Virgin Green Fund gains traction with CalPERS investment

Virgin Green Fund, the first green investment fund set up by U.K.-based Virgin Group, has raised $199 million from two large pension funds — CalPERS, Wolverhampton City Council — and other institutional investors to reach its first close, reports the Financial Times. CalPERS made its investment through PCG Clean Energy & Technology Fund. Macquarie Bank’s Clean Technology Fund is another prominent investor.

Aspen Aerogels raises $37M for nano-insulation materials

Aspen Aerogels, a Northborough, Mass.-based company that uses nanotech-processes to make insulation materials, has wrapped up a $37 million fourth round of funding. The round was led by Arcapita Ventures and joined by existing investors Lehman Brothers Venture Partners Reservoir Capital Group and RockPort Capital Partners.

Evri launches semantic site to help blaze paths through the Internet

Evri, a startup spun out of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s investment firm Vulcan Capital and headed by a long-time software executive from Amazon.com, has an idea for how natural language processing and semantic technology can help people navigate the Internet. And their idea has nothing to do with search. Like all semantic startups, Evri is all about helping machines connect concepts, using the structure and meaning of human language to create some order. The first wave of similar companies, like Powerset, Hakia and the still-stealthy Cuill, are all about using that concept to out-do Google and return better results. But where traditional search requires a definite aim and returns answers — good or bad — a better metaphor for Evri is Internet tourism, with an eye toward serendipitous discovery. When surfing content on the Internet, you’ll be able to click a link for a person, place or thing you’re interested in and move into a sort of parallel web built by Evri. The company automatically constructs “nodes” for concepts like Paris or Megan Fox based on their relationships to other nodes in the database. Each node contains some information, like a Wikipedia summary or video, about the thing you’re interested in, and links to associated content. That may sound something like an automated Mahalo, but CEO Neil Roseman says there’s a key difference. On sites like Mahalo and Wikipedia, “You go to a page on the Holy Grail there, you read it and you’re done. With us, we want to help people look into the content deeper,” he says. For example, if you were reading a news article about Paris and clicked through, you might find links out to more content about Marais, the neighborhood the article deals with, or a local musician, Julien Ribot. The most closely associated content comes up first, so you can read more about the subjects the article deals directly with if you want. But because the semantic linking recognizes any connection, you could also find yourself following a link to another person, place or thing that happened to have been mentioned alongside Marais or Ribot elsewhere. The result should be an entertaining journey for the casual surfer, reminiscent of a myth my dad told me about how the local roads were planned in the rural Virginia county where I grew up. First, he said, engineers dipped a cow’s tail in paint. Then they let it free to roam, and cleared a road anywhere they found paint. The result were winding, meandering roads that did a better job of showing you the local scenery than getting to a definite destination. That’s basically what Evri promises to do for the Internet. Of course, any Wikipedia user who has spent hours clicking through related links already knows the concept is good. The difference is the delivery. Evri plans to launch first with publishers like newspapers, offering either links in the content or a separate widget. And because its nodes are permanent pages, they should show up in search results, just like Wikipedia pages. Given Google’s continuing dominance of search, this angle seems somewhat more likely to have a broad appeal. The only question is the technology. It looked reasonably good when Roseman gave me a tour of the site, but also contained flaws and confusing or seemingly unrelated links. Steve Hall, a partner at Vulcan, says the technology is still coming together. “You’ve got the equivalent of a bunch of 7th grade grammar students going out on the web and collecting information bases on verbs and nouns,” he says. The aim is to make the software almost as smart as the web surfer using it. Roseman thinks that the basic concept is going to quickly find traction, and that there’s a big win in store for the company that does best. He says he expects to have only about 18 months to perfect the current iteration before needing to roll out even bigger and better implementations. Evri is based in Seattle, and has been funded entirely by Vulcan to date. It’s planning on opening up to other investors soon.

Green builder Serious Materials scoops up Alpen Windows

Serious Materials, one of the better-funded green building startups with its recent round of $50 million in the bank, has bought up an energy-efficient window manufacturer called Alpen Windows. Started as Quiet Solution, a maker of highly soundproofed building materials, Serious moved more aggressively into green building last year. It has several lines of insulating or environmentally friendly wall material. The acquisition, for an undisclosed price, should help the Serious round out its offerings. Alpen windows are advertised as being better than Energy Star-labeled products, with extremely good thermal insulation properties.

SunRun gets $12M, for "dominant" solar installation model

Like a new car, a solar system is a big investment. Some home owners can front the $10,000 – $30,000 for the panels and installation, but most need help. SunRun is one of a new breed of companies that’s figuring out ways to set up almost anyone with solar panels, whether or not they have lots of money. The earliest solar vendors were expert mainly in setting up and maintaining solar systems. SunRun, on the other hand, is a bit more like a leasing agent. Instead of just selling panels, SunRun sells its customers something called a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), which locks into a low electricity rate for a period of 18 years. The customer agrees to host the panels and pay for the power, but never needs to invest a large sum. The model is a variation on a new business category that has been dubbed “solar services,” and contains several strong startups. These include SolarCity, which provides leasing or payment plans; Sungevity, which tries to make solar dirt cheap; and Recurrent Energy, which sells power to businesses and government. For its part, SunRun limits itself to the residential business. Like all good ideas, solar services is a bit more complicated than it seems on the surface. The companies have to contract out the actual installation to specialists, or train their own installers. They also have to figure out how to cover their financing options, either through banks or their own on-hand cash. And they have to plan well into the future, because most remain responsible for servicing the panels they install. The practical considerations aren’t stopping their rampant growth, though. SunRun co-founder Nat Kreamer told me recently that demand is exceeding the company’s expectations, and that he sees solar service “emerging as the dominant business model.” In one example, a contract for multi-residence installation the company won rights to bid on in San Jose saw three quarters of the households choose SunRun’s PPA agreement, while only a quarter opted to buy their systems outright. There’s plenty of room for growth. Although the majority of these companies operate mostly in California — with some notable exceptions like Standard Renewable Energy — they’ve got around a million rooftops to cover before they have to start fighting for customers. And as costs for solar go down, the other 49 states will await. The $12 million funding was led by Foundation Capital, and is SunRun’s first venture round. The San Francisco company was seeded by angel investors and its management team.

Alter-G raises $2.5M more for anti-gravity treadmills

Alter-G, a Menlo Park, Calif. company whose first round of funding we reported last year, has taken an equal follow-on amount of $2.5 million to help roll out its “anti-gravity” treadmills for physical therapy. The device assumes a portion of the patient’s load by use of a pressurized that reduces effective weight. If that sounds odd, further description isn’t likely to help; just check out this video of the machine in action. The company says it will use the additional fund for marketing, clinical trials and product development. The first prototype was created for Nike almost three years ago. A lead investor was not named, but participants in the round include Frog & Peach Investments, Astrolabe Ventures and Funk Ventures. Alter-G previously took $2.5 million as the first half of this investment round, from NASA’s Red Planet Capital and Hellman & Friedman; its total to date is $5 million.

Hanger Network gets $10M boost for coat hanger campaigning

Few are aware of the looming issue of coat hanger pollution. Yet there they are, lying in heaps, projecting up from overburdened landfills, their anonymous, identical tops crooked into a single a questioning pose: Why? Why so much hanger waste? Coming to the rescue is Hanger Network In-Home Media, which promotes biodegradable updates of the basic design Thomas Jefferson introduced in the early days of our country. The company, which promotes and sells biodegradable hangars to dry cleaners, clothing designers and others, has received a second round of funding.

Energy Recovery files IPO for desalination

Energy Recovery, a San Leandro, Calif.-based firm which develops water desalination devices, has filed plans to list its shares on the NASDAQ under the ticker symbol “ERII.” The company expects its 14 million shares — 8.1 million of which will be offered by the firm itself, with the remaining 5.9 million to be sold by a stockholder group — to fetch between $7 and $9 apiece.

Semantic search startup TextDigger unearths a business model, and some venture funding

TextDigger, a semantic search startup that launched early last year at DEMO, has been much quieter in the interim than other companies in the space like Hakia, Powerset and Radar Networks / Twine. But now the company has come back to light, at least for us — a filing document reveals that the company has finally landed venture funding, raising $3.8 million so far. A year or two ago, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the term “Google killer” applied to companies like TextDigger. Expectations have since fallen somewhat, and most of the semantic startups have struck out in directions other than plain-vanilla web search. TextDigger landed on media services — no surprise, given that it was founded by former CNET employees. The company tells me it’s making the most progress with automated tagging and keyword generation, which help websites become more structured and show up higher on search rankings. Another product, a related search technology that helps visitors navigate a site, has also gotten interest. The products are completely developed, they say, and open to any publisher that wants to sign up. TextDigger makes money by charging for all three offerings, following a trial period; related search is charged per 1,000 queries, while auto-tagging and keyword generation are charged per query or tag. It will add self-serve tools this summer to help streamline and automate the process of signing up for the services. It’s encouraging to see TextDigger making some progress, and figuring out how semantic tech can feed hungry (investor) mouths. But notably, it hasn’t entirely given up on the idea of web search. Although the search segment of their website is closed to the public, when I asked whether the company had given up, a company exec responded that working on search and navigation on other sites would ultimately improve their web search, writing, “If and when we launch a public Web search, at a later date, it will certainly be much better for having incorporated the fruits of our labors in these other service areas.”By contrast, Hakia, which launched around the same time (our first coverage on the two was in the same article), has continued to make web search the core of its business, with new offerings like vertical search technology. However, Hakia is also looking to other businesses for its revenue right now; earlier this year, it began licensing itself for enterprise search applications. And today, it’s announcing a new push to syndicate its engine onto other web sites, along with some bells and whistles like XML feeds. It’s offering up to 30,000 searches per day through a web site for free, before it begins charging. It should be interesting to see how these two companies progress compared to each other, since they appeared at nearly the same time, with a similar pitch, but have since taken on very different strategies. TextDigger’s $3.8 million round was led by True Ventures, with participation from the Exis Trust and CNET, which provided the San Jose, Calif. company’s $1.5 million seed round, and also uses the technology on its own website.

Epyon raises funding to speed vehicle battery charging

Epyon, a developer and manufacturer of fast battery chargers for super-fast plug-in hybrid and full-electric vehicles, has raised a “multi-million” dollar venture round led by Chrysalix Energy. Based in the Netherlands, Epyon’s chargers can supposedly reduce charging time to 10 to 15 minutes, versus five to 10 hours for current batteries. The system also includes other components. The energy for charging is first stored up on-site to avoid overloading the electrical grid, which requires storage mediums like supercapacitors. Epyon’s scheme also uses analytical tools to get a holistic view of which cells in the battery need charging.

Roundup: Flickr founders leave Yahoo, ex-Citi CFO raising $3B for cleantech, Microsoft buys Navic, and more

Flickr founders join exodus from Yahoo — Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, the founders of photo-sharing app Flickr, a $35 million Yahoo acquisition, have added their names to the lengthening list of Yahoo defections. Kara Swisher speculates that a boardroom brawl is underway at the embattled search company. No word on where Fake and Butterfield will head next, although with any luck it’ll be another startup. Another $3 $1 billion for cleantech — Todd Thompson, the ex-CFO of Citi, is raising a targeted $3 billion (correction: It turns out Thompson is sticking to $1 billion after all, although the move to cleantech is confirmed) for a new cleantech-focused private equity fund, according to a tipster. Thompson was reported to be raising $1 to $2 billion for a new private equity fund last year. Originally slated for other purposes, the fund was flipped over to cleantech and carbon credits. The money will be a welcome capital influx for cleantech, which has rapidly grown to become the third-largest venture investment category. Microsoft buys TV ad network Navic — As part of its ongoing plan to capture a share of the modern advertising market, Microsoft has snapped up Navic Networks, which makes interactive ads for TV, as well as running its own sales network. Study predicts 100X growth in solar by 2025 — Solar of all sorts accounts for under 0.1 percent of electricity generation in the United States today, but a study co-authored by Clean Edge and Co-op America predicts that it will rise to around 10 percent by 2025. The price tag: Around $500 billion. Meanwhile, pleasingly-named Texan T. Boone Pickens is still betting on wind, and is lobbying Washington to help out. Ad startup Zango lays off 68 employees — Zango, historically one of the foremost perpetrators of pesky pop-up ads served up by Trojan ad software, has been forced to lay off about a third of its workforce, according to John Cook at the Seattle PI. The company has actually distanced itself from pop-ups in recent years, which leads one to wonder if they should have stuck with the illicit activities.The Westly Group’s new $130M cleantech fund — Connie Loizos of peHUB has an interview with the two principals of the Westly Group on their new cleantech fund. Varolii gives up on IPO plans — How many companies have backed out of IPOs this year due to bad market conditions? More than you can count on your fingers, but less than if you included your toes. Varolii, a customer communications software maker in Seattle, has helped come closer to breaking the finger-toe barrier by backing out of its own IPO.

Center'd marries local search to event listings and planning

Launching this evening is a new company that thinks it can be all things to all local searchers: Listings like Yelp, events like Going, and planning like Evite, all layered atop a rich, yet feathery-light social network. Mouth watering? Too bad, because Center’d isn’t fully baked yet. But the site shows early promise, and a meeting with its founders today left me thinking it has potential to become something big. Despite the multi-pronged approach, Center’d’s strength is in keeping its interface simple, and not trying to do everything itself. For example, the site offers rated business listings, but to do so, it ties into Yelp, InsiderPages, Judy’s Book, and other sites. For events, it does the same. That leaves the site free to concentrate on networking and planning. No process on Center’d takes more than a few clicks. Putting together an imaginary night out with the VentureBeat writers was simple: With the site’s assistance, I picked a local bar, set a time, and made a quick list of things attendees should bring. If there’s any uncertainty over scheduling or location, a voting process for attendees can be set up, much like the professional scheduling tool Timebridge offers. The social network, also, makes no effort to reproduce Facebook. Most interactions with others are centered around planning, but you can also see shared “saved” places — for instance, if you’ve got a favorite bar in Manhattan that you’ve saved, you’ll see if your friend in San Francisco also like the same place. CEO Jen Dulski says that combining your trust (or distrust) of your acquaintances’ preferences with ratings from outside sites like Yelp will provide a better local listings scheme. Rather than aiming at people who are active on Facebook and MySpace, Dulski wants to target what she called “busy adults”, or people who spend their time out and about instead of hunched over their computer screens (an unfamiliar idea to me, but I’ll take her word that they exist). She says the initial target audience will be organizations like schools, churches and non-profits, which already contain groups of people that need to stay in touch. That plan seems smart, but I have the feeling Center’d will need to tie in with Facebook et al to get the attention it wants. If I plan an event, I can’t just hope my friends are present on Center’d, I need to be able to send them an invitation on whichever site they prefer using — also a form of free advertising. In the meantime, with its added functionality, I can imagine Center’d easily taking my visits from Yelp, Eventful and other sites. Having everything in one place is convenient, and could be a dark-horse tiebreaker for lockups like the battle between events sites that I wrote about last year. But the site needs more work; several times during my navigation, it froze up or ran slowly. Its listings, especially for events, also aren’t anywhere near complete, although all local sites suffer the same problem to one degree or another. Center’d, based in Menlo Park, Calif., was founded in 2007. The company raised $6.5 million late last year from Norwest Venture Partners, Keynote Ventures and several angels. It has 11 employees.

ShotSpotter picks up $7.5M for gunshot sensing

ShotSpotter, a Santa Clara, Calif. startup that can help police and other security forces detect and triangulate gunshots in real-time, has raised $7.5 million for sales, marketing, and international expansion, in its fourth funding to date. The technology ShotSpotter has developed is conceptually simple: A network of audio sensors attached to phone lines or wireless communication devices is spread across an area, generally within a city. When shots are fired, the sensors pick up the sound, identify it as gunfire (as distinct from backfires, fireworks and other loud noises), triangulates on the source, and automatically notify nearby police. The specifics are a bit more technical, involving patented algorithms and specialized hardware. Several competitors, like the Secures system from Planning Systems, operate in the same space, but ShotSpotter says its technology requires less sensors and is more accurate. New investor the Westly Group led the round, and was joined by Norwest Venture Partners, Broidy Capital Management, Labrador Ventures, Levensohn Venture Partners, and Claremont Creek Ventures. ShotSpotter’s previous three rounds, including its previous round of $12 million (click for more coverage), bring its total financing to date to $29.6 million. The company says this funding will be its last.

V2Green takes seed funding for plug-in electric charging tech

If plug-in and full-electric vehicles are ever to hit the road in significant numbers, their downtime at the charging plug could create a challenging new load for utilities. V2Green has software that it says can orchestrate vehicle charging with the generating capacity of the electrical grid. The Seattle-based company, founded in 2006 and just provided with seed funding, is developing an application that stays inside a vehicle and communicates with local utilities when it’s time to “fuel up”. The software could help direct cars to only charge when energy is cheap and readily available, a scheme that will work well with renewables like wind and solar power. Although it’ll be a few years yet until there are many electric vehicles on the road, there are likely to be numerous challenges for V2Green in cornering the market, once it exists. While consumers might see some small cost savings, “the ultimate beneficiary of smart-charging is the utilities,” CEO John Clark admits. Car makers and consumers will likely need incentives to encourage use of the software, like an up-front calculation of what it can save them, such as more efficient, but also more expensive CFL light bulbs have. And even with incentives, there could be some pitfalls to using the software, at least from the demanding viewpoint of consumers, who will want their car fully charged when they’re ready to drive — not when the grid is ready to supply energy. But for the moment, V2Green is still developing, although Clark says it already has some income. The company is doing testing with Austin Energy in Texas and Seattle City Light locally, and is also eyeing other opportunities for smart-grid software. V2Green took about $1 million from unnamed seed investors. The company is keeping the round open, and may begin looking for venture funding at the end of this year or early next.

OneSpot launches news crawler widget for media sites

OneSpot, a news aggregator reminiscent of Blogrunner, Sphere and other media widgets that pull in news from around the web, is launching today with two high-profile pilot clients, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Each of which will run a widget containing story headlines provided by OneSpot’s algorithm. This launch is the latest move in a molasses-like battle between traditional media websites and independent news portals like Google News and Techmeme to become the news homepage of surfers. The OneSpot widget helps newspapers offer content from other sources — a strategy that most have been loath to adopt, following a hundred years of zero-sum, mine-or-theirs battling for readers. That attitude is evidenced by the way the two papers are rolling out OneSpot: In very small, risk-free implementations. The WashPo is using The Root, a news site it owns that caters to black Americans with an interest in genealogy. The WSJ is implementing the widget on its own site, but only on its law blog. Clearly, these newspapers are still most interested in keeping a self-confined ecosystem that readers never leave. By contrast, one of the more forward-looking newspaper companies, The New York Times Co., is light-years ahead. Last year, the company launched BlogRunner, which it owns, across the entire technology section of its site. Another paper, the LA Times, recently invested in social news site Mixx. OneSpot is likely banking on convincing its clients, which include other, unnamed companies, that the NYT and LAT have made the correct bet. While dozens of sites have launched to independently aggregate news, most, with some notable exceptions like Digg and Techmeme, have failed to get traction. By contrast, there are only a few companies that are attempting to cater to other media sites, although there are recommendation tools like Aggregate Knowledge that newspapers most often use to pull content from within their own site — in effect, perpetuating the closed system newspapers prefer. Matt Cohen, OneSpot’s founder, thinks that more in-site aggregators will appear — and that the competition will be a good thing for his company’s future. Media sites will ease their attitudes toward outside content once they see more traffic coming in from aggregators on other sites, he says. In the meantime, he claims that retail store sites may help prop up his business, because they can see the use in having a content widget. “They market to millions of people but they don’t see themselves as content creators,” he says, noting that having links to outside content can help retailers fill out their sites, and keep clients coming back. OneSpot has raised about $1 million in seed funding from two angel investors. The company is based in Austin, Texas.

IBM adds thin-film process to burgeoning cleantech business

Big Blue has been on a cleantech tear of late. Starting with a touchy-feely virtual world it released for Earth Day in April, the company has made a succession of announcements: A technology for cooling concentrating solar arrays, a new line of modular, energy-efficient data-centers, and the latest, its entrance into the thin-film solar cell market. Joining with Japanese semiconductor company Tokyo Ohka Kogyo, IBM will be working on thin-film copper-gallium-selenide (CIGS) cells, the same technology that Nanosolar, Miasole, Heliovolt and several other startups use. However, IBM has come out of the gate claiming its cells will be both cheaper and better than competing offerings that are headed to the market. IBM told Reuters it plans to make cells with a 15 percent efficiency, about 50 percent higher than most CIGs cells and about even with the dominant silicon-based technologies. However, it says it will produce them for under $1 per watt, a symbolic price barrier that no manufacturer has yet breached. CNET has details on the chemical evaporation manufacturing process the company plans to use. If IBM can meet its goals, its cells will be superior, in terms of the all-important cost-efficiency metric, to any other cells on the market, able to operate effectively in either municipal power plants or on the roofs of houses and businesses. The company plans on having the technology ready to license out to manufacturers within 2-3 years. Here’s the grain of salt: IBM happens to be entering the most hyped segment of the cleantech market, with the possible exception of cellulosic ethanol. Over the past couple of years, CIGs technologies captured the lion’s share of VC investment into solar technologies but still account for less than 10 percent of the solar market. It’s hard to tell whether IBM is simply jumping into whichever markets it sees the most excitement in, or whether the technology expertise it has gained from its semiconductor business just happens to be uniquely suited to the same solar technologies that are already getting the most press. Through no fault of IBM’s, there’s also a boy-who-cried-wolf situation: Thin-film companies have been all too happy to trumpet their own achievements before those achievements have actually been made. Commercializing CIGs hasn’t been easy; as we noted almost exactly a year ago, the most hotly anticipated CIGs companies had all slipped on their delivery dates, and several are still struggling today. IBM, also, will have to prove that it can walk the talk. Meanwhile, there are a couple of companies that have already started making thin-film cells at scale. Thin-film market leader First Solar is producing CdTe cells for just over $1 per watt, and Nanosolar has intimated that it’s also producing cells fairly cheaply. But keep an eye on IBM. Along with its most publicized ventures (like this one), Big Blue seems to be making a concerted push into cleantech, including a nanotech effort toward low-power semiconductors, enterprise carbon modeling software, and membership in the Eco-Patent Commons. Given the recent trend, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear more from IBM soon.

Neodyne Biosciences raises $1M for plastic surgery wound care

A stealthy Palo Alto, Calif. startup called Neodyne Bioscences has raised $1 million from the Freidenrich Family Trust, according to a regulatory filing obtained by VentureBeat. Neodyne was started by doctors at Stanford University. It’s working on plastic surgery technologies for wound care, but a representative we contacted declined to give more details. The company has no immediate plans to raise more financing.

Technorati raising $10M to keep tracking blogs

Formerly a media darling, but now mostly overlooked, San Francisco-based Technorati has plugged on nonetheless. The blog search engine has raised $7.5 million of a fresh $10 million round, according to documents unearthed by peHUB. Technorati has spent a couple years casting about for a business model, but appears to finally be finding its way, with the help of raw data. As we recently reported, Truviso used the company to show off a tag cloud technology that makes use of Technorati’s obsession with bloggers. However, it seems unlikely that the valuation for this company has gone up much since its last funding, which was a larger round of $11.52 million. It’s still a long way from making money, and traffic is either even or gradually declining, according to Compete. The company hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment. Technorati also hasn’t brought in any new backers. Joining the round were previous investors Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Mobius Venture Capital, and FG Incubation, which helps run its Japanese subsidiary. Technorati has raised around $30 million to date.

The algae (claims) just keep getting better

It’s time to give algae their due. While hundreds of startups have been grappling with the problem of how to squeeze fuel out of corn, grass, wood, trash and nearly anything else you can think of, quiet little algae have progressed to the point where they may well save the world alone. One of the latest headlines is a heavily self-funded startup called Algenol Biofuels, which anticipates producing a jaw-dropping billion gallons a year of ethanol by the end of 2012. The Florida-based company just inked a deal with a new Mexican company called BioFields to build a refinery south of the border, according to Reuters. But wait a minute, you might say — ethanol? The idea of producing ethanol from algae might seem a little odd, because thus far, only biomass producers have produced ethanol, mainly from corn and sugar. Algae produce a lot of oil, which is useful for producing biodiesel, or can be processed differently to produce gasoline, jet fuel and other products. Algae oil, however, doesn’t translate directly into ethanol. That makes Algenol unique, to my knowledge. To make the fuel, its modified algae are enclosed in bio-reactors full of seawater and CO2, where they can churn out ethanol, which evaporates and is piped out — no further steps necessary. Using an enclosed system isn’t quite as unusual, but it’s not the standard in algal fuel production. Most companies anticipate growing their charges on open ponds. The recent history of algae cultivation has required overcoming various hurdles in either sort of system. Algae must be protected, not only from the intrusion of other life-forms, but also from poisoning or smothering themselves with their own byproducts. That’s a simple problem in a lab setting, but grows more intractable the larger the installation. But while outfits like Aurora BioFuels, GreenFuel and LiveFuels have grappled with the problems, a succession of bigger-and-better announcements have appeared. Before Algenol, just a couple weeks ago, Sapphire Energy announced that it would create a “green crude” comparable to light, sweet crude (the best kind) drawn from the earth by oil companies, using only sunlight and water from agricultural runoff and other polluted sources. Another startup, Aquaflow, said it could just skim up unwanted wild algae, which it may use for jet fuel. Separately, talk in some quarters is picking up about using algae to produce hydrogen, a process being perfected by, among others, the University of California at Berkeley in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. All this raises a question of which fuel is best. Biodiesel has a higher energy content than most other fuels, but it’s not nearly as commonly used as gasoline in the US, a fact that Sapphire uses as a selling point. Ethanol, on the other hand, has a relatively low energy content and is new to transportation, meaning it requires some infrastructure changes. Yet Algenol says it will be producing the “cheapest fuel in the world”, and money is the salient point. Another commentator suggests skipping them all, and just producing methanol. But the similarity between all these startups is that they’re just counting eggs. None of those eggs, as of yet, have hatched. So while the claims continue to get bigger, keep an eye on what’s actually growing. For some schemes, it’s bound not to be as much as they hope.

Delphi grabs $8M to shrink electric vehicle inverters

A team at manufacturing giant Delphi that is working on inverters used in hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles has embarked on an $8 million research project, with the help of a grand from the Department of Energy. An inverter is a piece of equipment that converts direct current (DC) electricity to alternating current (AC). In electric vehicles, it helps modify current passing between the batteries, motor and braking system. While not the most vital component of an electric vehicle, it can significantly affect their cost and weight. Delphi will receive $5 million from the DoE, and contribute $3 million of its own, to bring down the costs and size of inverters. The startup will also have help from a range of supporting actors, including Dow Corning, GeneSiC, General Electric, Argonne National Lab and Oak Ridge National Lab, each of which will handle certain aspects of the research or supply.

Thin film maker PrimeStar Solar sells majority stake to GE Energy

PrimeStar Solar, a startup developing thin-film cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar cells, has sold a majority state to General Electric Energy, a division of tech giant GE. Founded in 2006, PrimeStar makes use of technology developed in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In 2007, the company received around $3 million as part of a DoE grant, and later announced a strategic investment by GE. Relatively few thin-film manufacturers use CdTe technology, but among them is one of the most successful solar companies around, First Solar. The investment may indicate that GE has ambitions to add a solar subsidiary the size of $21 billion First Solar to its family of companies. The amount of the investment was not disclosed. PrimeStar is based in Golden, Colorado, with offices in Montague, Michigan.

Speed-dating site WooMe raises $12.5M more, enjoys $41M valuation

WooMe, a video speed-dating site whose claim to fame is a speedy, no-frills interface and the ability to attract people who would never touch a traditional dating site (it calls itself an “introductions platform”), has raised a fresh round of capital to continue expanding. NewTeeVee had the scoop on the funding news, however its report said the company was valued at $30 million after the money, and had a deal with MTV, both of which WooMe representative called “inaccurate”. WooMe says its post-valuation is significantly higher, at $41 million, and that there’s no deal at all with MTV. By all appearances, WooMe has been growing rapidly. Three months after the site launched, co-founder Stephen Stokols told me that the site was running about 1,000 video sessions between users (read our past coverage for more on how WooMe works). Today, the company is claiming 15,000 sessions each day, with 350,000 registered users. It also says the average amount of time active users spend on the site is doubling each month. One does get the impression, though, that WooMe hasn’t grown quite as quickly as its founders hoped. One whisper I’ve heard is that WooMe attracts new users easily, but has had trouble user retention, despite some high-profile media appearances, including the BBC and Fox’s Morning Show. An ongoing “bridge round” that saw its initial funding extended to $7.5 million from $1.9 million may have indicated the site had trouble convincing investors it’s really rocket-fueled (bridge rounds are sometimes made on less favorable terms, though we don’t know the details here). But this is just speculation on my part. With the significant valuation of this round, it appears that any worries have probably been set aside, for now. [update: Stokols says the bridge round raised in December was actually done because the numbers were well beyond what was expected.] The $12.5 million round was led by Index Ventures, with existing investors Atomico and Mangrove Capital Partners participating. The round has also been left open, with about $500,000 left to raise for “strategic angels” who may come in. WooMe has its offices split between San Francisco, Los Angeles and London.

Itero Biopharmaceuticals raises $21M for proteins and antibodies

Itero Biopharmaceuticals, a San Mateo, Calif. startup working with follow-on and therapeutic proteins and antibodies, raised a $21 million first round of financing and announced a partnership with Biological E., an Indian manufacturing firm. Alongside its partner, Itero will begin development of differentiated follow-on proteins and work on securing patents and approvals for worldwide distribution, with multiple other product lines planned for the future. SV Life Sciences, which is listed as the largest shareholder, and Panorama Capital led the round, with participation from VenturEast.

ECO2 Plastics raises $6.5 million to recycle plastic

ECO2 Plastics, a San Francisco-based recycling firm, has just raised $6.5 million in new funding from Trident Capital and a group of small investors led by Thompson Hutton. The company sells a product analogous to recycled plastic, which is used for a variety of industry applications, that it says is produced in a more efficient, environmentally-conscious way.

Madrona Venture Group loads up $250M more for Pacific Northwest investment

Madrona Venture Group, one of the higher-profile venture capital firms in the Seattle area, has closed on an oversubscribed $250 million fund, its fourth to date. The firm was shooting for $225 million, but received strong interest from both existing an new investors. Alongside the University of Washington, Madrona now counts Cambridge and Oxford Universities among its backers. Madrona has done well recently with several high-profile exits, including Microsoft’s recent $115 million acquisition of Farecast. In an interview with the Seattle PI’s John Cook, partner Matt McIlwain said the firm had stopped fundraising at the point it did in order to stick with its winning formula:

Limerick BioPharma raises $15.2M for drug bioavailability

A stealthy life sciences startup called Limerick BioPharma has raised $11 million in venture funding and $4.2 million in debt, according to VentureWire. The participants in the round are not clear, but Arch Venture Partners, Sevin Rosen Funds and Altitude Funds are all listed as investors. Limerick says on its website that it’s working on improving existing therapies through modulating bioavailability — keeping potentially harmful substances out of tissues while maintaining their effectiveness. The technology could allow opioids to work without impairing function. However, the specific drugs the company is working with have not been disclosed.