DuPont Scoops Up “Silicon Ink” Maker Innovalight

One of the many tasks confronting the energy industry, if we’re to have any hope of sidestepping a climate catastrophe, is to dramatically increase the efficiency of photovoltaic cells, so that more of the sun’s energy can be converted into electricity. Sunnyvale, CA-based Innovalight has developed a material it calls “silicon ink” that’s helping in that regard—and solar panel manufacturers in China have been slurping it up. It’s such an attractive market that chemical giant DuPont (NYSE: DD) wants to get in. So it bought the company.

DuPont released the news this morning. The Wilmington, DE-based company’s materials are already used in about 70 percent of all photovoltaic panels manufactured around the world; for example, under the brand name Solamet, it makes the metal contact fingers that manufacturers place atop a photovoltaic panel’s crystalline silicon layer to collect the free electrons knocked loose by sunlight.

Innovalight’s silicon ink, which consists of tiny, extremely pure nanocrystals of silicon suspended in a solvent, is designed to be applied beneath those metal fingers; it gets into the crystalline silicon and acts as a doping agent, decreasing electrical resistance and allowing more electrons to make their way to the fingers. Which meant DuPont was already very familiar with the startup.

“DuPont has been working with Innovalight for four or five years from a supplier perspective, and in the last couple of years we’ve been growing closer together through product impact and business synergies,” says Rob Cockerill, the DuPont executive who has been named business manager of the new DuPont Innovalight division. “We’ve always been extremely impressed with Innovalight’s technology, so they were a natural fit for us in the photovoltaic space.”

DuPont didn’t disclose the terms of the acquisition, but it said that all 58 current Innovalight employees, including former CEO Conrad Burke (pictured above), will stay on, and that the division will remain headquartered in Sunnyvale. Burke has been named general manager of the division.

Innovalight was founded in 2002 but long struggled to find a viable market for its silicon nanocrystal technology. Its first foray, into the lighting industry, fizzled. Burke, a former Sevin Rosen partner, restarted the company in 2005 (as we explained in an October 2010 profile of Innovalight). At first he intended to remake the firm as a photovoltaic manufacturer, but after low-cost solar plants in in China gained a huge lead in solar manufacturing, Innovalight reinvented itself as a materials supplier. The company announced the first two customers for its technology, Baoding-based Yingli Solar and Shanghai-based JA Solar, in 2010. It has collected just over $60 million in venture funding over the years from a large group of investors including Apax Partners, Arch Venture Partners, Convexa Capital, EDB Investments, Harris & Harris Group, Leader Ventures, Sevin Rosen Funds, Silicon Valley Bank, Triton Ventures, and Vertex Venture Holdings.

As a part of DuPont, Innovalight will have much greater reach as it attempts to convince more panel makers to incorporate silicon ink into their manufacturing process, Burke says. “They are located, in terms of sales, marketing, and tech support, in all the key regions where our customers are,” Burke says. “The very large footprint that DuPont brings to the table is something we could only dream of building ourselves over a long period of time. Also, the unspoken message here is that this brings a lot of comfort to our customers—knowing we’ve got the backing of one of the giants in the industry.”

Cockerill says DuPont won’t immediately attempt to integrate the silicon ink technology into any of its own products. But he says there will be opportunities in the near future to tweak Innovalight’s material and the Solamet metallization technology in concert drive up panel efficiency. “One of the most interesting opportunities is that if you look at Innovalight’s roadmap for the next five, six, or seven generations, it’s an exact match to Solamet; they want to do the same things we do,” Cockerill says. “Together we believe we can make a huge impact with our customers.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “DuPont Scoops Up “Silicon Ink” Maker Innovalight”

  1. My company Embassy energy is vitally interested in utilizing the new InovaLight tech. We are planning with shiller a new solar plant in New Jersey Corporation.
    We have a new patent for a Sun tracking device for rooftop’s that allows roof mounted panels to generate their full rated amount of electricity.. When we combine this is technology we also own and geothermal we can create the first zero cost for energy homes.. We have a 50.million dollar per month market in 14 states in the Northeast where 9 million homes heat with $3.57 a gallon fuel oil
    and by selling this combination of enhanced total production solar panel systems coupled with geothermal we totally can now create zero cost for energy homes… We have other major partners and would like to discuss this with the powers that be in the first utilization of the new technology you bought yesterday… Is there a possibility that some human being in your organization could contact me by telephone so that I could get our information to the right department at DuPont our technology with new highest output solar panels will benefit millions of Americans who wish to eliminate there cost for electricity air-conditioning and especially propane and $3.50 a gallon fuel oil…
    I’m aware that this is a common sense approach that will actually be very surprise if I get an answer… Our aim is to in five hours of sunshine produce 45 kW per day or working hundred kilowatts a month… When installed on a new home or an existing home as a retrofit the savings to 9 million Americans with oil furnaces could be from $6-$9000 per year in energy expense that is contributing to global warming… Is it at all possible that some human being in your organization could contact me by telephone 847-466-2221 ASAP I would suggest you also could check our website at newhomesforheroes.US