Solar star Miasole gets new CEO, seeks more funds

Chip equipment veteran takes over the corner office. New round of funding would likely help Miasole move to volume manufacturing.

Miasole, a notable solar start-up that has been hit with some delays, is getting retrofitted.

The company, which specializes in copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells and panels, has appointed Joseph Laia as CEO and president. Laia, a veteran of the semiconductor chip equipment industry, worked most recently at KLA-Tencor.

Dave Pearce, founder and former CEO, will stay on as chairman.

"The board and I have long talked about a transition to a leader who will scale Miasole to commercial manufacturing and worldwide operations," said Pearce in a prepared statement Monday.

Sources also say that the company is in the midst of closing another large found of funding. In earlier rounds, the company raised more than $56 million. More executive and management changes are under way, sources added. The new round of funding will likely help Miasole move to volume manufacturing, but it may create a cloud of uncertainty over the company. Occasionally, increased funding rounds, prior to a maiden product release, are seen as a sign that the company didn't anticipate some of the difficulties.

Miasole nor its investors have commented on the new round of funding or the other executive changes. CNET News.com sent an e-mail to Miasole for further clarification, but has not heard back. News.com is currently in the process of getting information on these issues from some of Miasole's investors.

The announcement of the executive change was soft-pedaled. The company put an announcement on its Web site on September 10. Nonetheless, there was almost no notice of it in the press, which is unusual considering that the company has been one of the most closely watched solar companies in Silicon Valley. Solar venture capitalists and executives contacted by CNET News.com in the past two days were discussing the management changes as the latest unconfirmed rumor. At best, they could confirm that a search for a replacement was on.

The green industry is going through growing pains. In recent months, Tesla Motors, the electric car company, and GreenFuel Technologies, which captures carbon dioxide with algae and then sells the algae to biofuel refiners, both replaced their founding CEOs. Like Miasole, both chose executives with more experience in logistics and "scaling up" operations.

Scaling up is a big issue. To produce revenue, a large number of green companies will have to build large, expensive, complex manufacturing or logistics facilities. Solar companies such as Miasole and competitor Nanosolar plan on erecting multimillion-dollar factories to make CIGS cells. Ice Energy, which makes an air conditioner that cools by making ice at night, recently raised $25 million to build a factory.

In many cases, the founding CEOs are experts in the core technology, but not in issues such as low-cost manufacturing. Thus, VCs are turning often to old friends in the chip and hardware business to take over. Tesla's interim CEO, for instance, is Michael Marks, who used to run contract manufacturer Flextronics.

CIGS solar panels aren't as efficient as silicon solar panels, but proponents say that the panels, along with the factories, will be a lot cheaper. A factory that can produce 30 megawatts worth of silicon solar panels might cost close to $100 million. CIGS manufacturers say they can build factories for $25 million that will produce their 25-megawatt panels.

The catch? CIGS aren't in mass manufacturing yet anywhere and cracking that problem is proving tricky. There are several companies trying to bring products out and each has a slightly different manufacturing technique.

In May, news of Miasole's delays leaked out. The company could produce 5-square-foot sheets of CIGS solar cells that hit the company's target efficiency of 8 percent to 10 percent on its research-and-development production lines. (The efficiency rating refers to how much of the sunlight the panel can convert into electricity.) However, on its commercial production lines, Miasole was only seeing efficiencies of 4 percent to 6 percent, with some high spots of 9 percent mixed in.

At the time, Pearce said the company will likely enter into volume production in October--later than expected. In September 2006, Miasole had said it expected to achieve revenue of $100 million by the end of 2007. That probably won't happen now, Pearce added.

"We're trying to give birth to a new process. The trouble is that we don't know how long the gestation period is," said Pearce in May about the delays. "But nothing has changed in terms of the fundamentals of the technology."

DayStar Technoloogies and HelioVolt, CIGS competitors, have also experienced delays.

 

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