Polaris Venture Partners Backing MIT Chemist’s “Solar Fuel” Startup
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the development of a material that can absorb solar energy to enable the water-splitting reaction. Another is finding a metal cheaper than the platinum to convert hydrogen molecules into hydrogen gas, according to a July 2008 Technology Review story. In the same article, though, German chemist Karsten Meyer, of Friedrich Alexander University, said: “…this is probably the most important single [solar energy] discovery of the century.”
Still, Sun Catalytix is not without competition. For several year, Maynard, MA-based Nanoptek has been working to commercialize its own catalyst to break apart water molecules and produce hydrogen gas. Nanoptek’s catalyst consists of titanium dioxide and “nano-structures” (according to its website), and is also intended to use energy from the sun to complete its water-splitting reaction. The company has kept a low profile since it announced a $4.7 million first-round financing in January 2008, and company CEO John Guerra told me that the company isn’t talking publicly about its operations or technology.
The formation of Sun Catalytix comes at a difficult time for solar energy startups, several of which, such as Evergreen Solar, Konarka Technologies, and Wakonda Technologies, call the Boston area home. The global market for solar energy and technology is expected to fall from $36 billion in 2008 to an estimated $29 billion this year, according to a February report by Boston-based Lux Research. The decline is due in large part to the global financial crisis, lower demand for traditional photovoltaic solar cells, and a decrease in prices for this technology, Lux solar energy analyst Johanna Schmidtke says. At the same time, market worries among solar consumers have stunted adoption of newer solar products such as cadium-telluride-based cells and thin film solar cells.
These dynamics can spell trouble for young firms with new technologies trying to gain a foothold in the solar energy market. “It’s definitely a market barrier,” Schmidtke says. “We’ve heard of companies that are having significant trouble at the… research and development level.”
Still, there’s hope for Sun Catalytix and other startups in the early stages of developing solar technologies. The solar energy market will begin to recover in 2010 and grow to a whopping $70 billion by 2013, according to Lux. This is also good news for Polaris-backed startups such as Beverly, MA-based SiOnyx, which is developing “black silicon” to make more efficient photovoltaic cells and semiconductors, and 1366 Technologies, a Lexington, MA-based firm that aims to reduce the cost of producing multicrystalline PV cells.
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