SoloPower, a new start-up that makes “thin-film” solar cells, so called because they are thinner and more flexible than existing silicon products, has raised $10 million.

The news was reported by VentureWire this morning (sub required).

Founded in late 2005, Milpitas, Calif.-based SoloPower raised the financing from Crosslink Capital, fund manager Firsthand Capital Management Inc. and individual investors last year.

This is significant because there are a handful of other start-ups that are building similar technologies, but they have taken their time to get to market. SoloPower says it is already building a pilot production line. The VentureWire report suggests that the company is in the very early stages of testing its manufacturing process, however. Competitors Nanosolar and Miasole — each backed with much more money — are apparently more advanced. Both of those companies have been testing manufacturing for some time.

The thin-film solar cells technology is not the challenge. It has existed, and is well known. Rather, the race is to produce a manufacturing process that can make the new solar cells efficiently and cheaply — and that is the part that none of these companies have proven they can do, at least publicly.

Indeed, the VentureWire report says that SoloPower has merely tested the thin-film technology, while the actual conception of the manufacturing process has yet to begin:

Now, with the tests done, SoloPower will seek an additional round to build out its manufacturing capability and further prove its technology, [CEO Homayoun] Talieh said. But unlike his competitors, the next financing will be significantly under $100 million, he said.

Update: Alain Harrus, partner at Crosslink, and backer of SoloPower, tells VentureBeat that the company intends to have its product hit the market within a year, though he did not say in what form (an advanced protoype given to customers, or something more significant, etc). He did say it planned to have sales by mid 2008. Keep in mind that that SoloPower’s competitors have made similar promises, only to delay. Harrus said Miasole is closest to high-volumn production but that SoloPower and Nanosolar will be close behind.

He said that SoloPower’s “electroplating” technology, where you place carbon material only in areas high voltage potential, is cheaper than other methods, but not necessarily more efficient. The technology is very well known, as electroplating has been used to place silver on cable instruments, and in the semiconductor industry, he said.

Miasole, he said, uses a physical vapor deposition, or “sputtering” process.
Nanosolar, meanwhile, uses nano particles in a liquid form that can be sprayed onto the metal substrate.