Struggles continue for thin film solar startups, Nanosolar latest with layoffs

Super cheap solar panels being churned out of China continue to put pressure on the startups looking to build the next-generation of thin film solar cells. According to two reports (Dana Hull, and Greentech Media) thin film solar startup Nanosolar has done a round of layoffs, which could be as substantial as 75 percent of its staff.

Oh how times have changed — one of the first stories I did for GigaOM’s cleantech channel was 10 questions for Nanosolar CEO Martin Roschiesen in the Summer of 2007. Back then Roschiesen told me the company was starting pilot production that year and had raised enough money to make it profitable. In 2008, the company was valued at $2 billion.

Fast forward to 2012, and Nanosolar raised $70 million from investors, reportedly at a pre-money valuation of $50 million. Aeris Capital, a fund that manages finances for SAP founder Klaus Tschira, partly funded that round as a way to pick up solar assets on the cheap. Other investors in that round included OnPoint Technologies, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Ohana Holdings, and Family Offices. Nanosolar has taken in at least $450 million since its start in 2002.

Nanosolar Material After Coating

Nanosolar makes thin solar panels out of a material called copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS). At one time in Silicon Valley, CIGS were the great white hope — Solyndra, Heliovolt, Miasole, and others raised hundreds of millions of dollars to build the next-generation of solar tech. But the price of silicon-based solar dropped dramatically and made the economics of selling more expensive CIGS much more difficult. Some of these companies have gone bankrupt, done major layoffs, retrenched or been sold off in fire sales.

Solar Frontier, part of Japan’s Showa Shell, is one of the only companies to reach scale with its CIGS solar panels. The company completed a 900 MW factory in late 2010 and brought all of its production lines into commercial production mode by the summer of 2011.

Nanosolar could end up being acquired for cheap from international investors. South Korean and Chinese power conglomerates have particuarly shown interest in investing in and buying discounted U.S. clean power assets. Or there’s always the Solyndra route — a very public, abrupt bankruptcy.

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