The chip-making powerhouse that is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is going the way of its American competitors, like Applied Materials, by investing heavily in promising new solar technology. Its choice: Stion, a San Jose, Calif.-based startup working to develop thin-film solar panels using CIGSS (copper indium gallium sulfur-selenide) technology.
Under the deal, TSMC has bought up a $50 million sake in the company, in addition to signing a licensing and joint development agreement with Stion. According to the terms, TSMC is effectively acquiring the CIGSS design that makes Stion’s panels so compelling. In exchange, it will churn out the solar modules Stion needs to commercialize its products.
Stion’s funding history follows standard thin-film trends. There was a lot of interest in thin-film two to three years ago when it first emerged as a cheaper alternative to crystalline silicon. At the time, silicon prices were sky high, and thin-film panels used much less of the material. So Stion was able to land $6 million in 2006 and another $15 million in 2007.
Today, however, venture capitalist have shifted their interest away from thin-film, toward more capital-efficient investments in solar components and information technology. Microinverters, devices used to optimize solar power output, are a perfect example, with companies such as SolarBridge and Enphase Energy recently scoring generous funds from VCs.
It looks like Stion is one of the few thin-film operations lucky enough to wrangle corporate financing, a loophole that should save it from the private capital drought that’s already begun in this area. Yesterday, we ran a piece on SunPower and how its crystalline silicon panels are trucking along as thin-film loses its glow. This doesn’t mean that all thin-film companies will go belly up — rather, only a couple will find the partnerships and money needed to move from laboratory testing to commercial sales.
TSMC could give Stion the backing it needs to make this jump. But it’s also hedging its bets geographically. It may be betting on a horse in Silicon Valley, but it has also taken a stake in a Taiwanese peer, Motech Industries. Reportedly, TSMC paid $193 million for a 20 percent share of the company. With China and the U.S. rising to become solar super powers, it makes sense for a player like TSMC to have a foot in both the U.S. and Asia.
Previously, Stion was able to recruit a prestigious roster of investors, including Khosla Ventures, General Catalyst Partners, Braemar Energy Ventures, Moser Baer Photovoltaic and Lightspeed Venture Partners.