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Start-up Wakonda promises 'breakthrough' solar cells

Finding solar start-ups to invest in is getting tougher, say investors, because most solar photovoltaic technologies are aimed at incremental improvements. Will Wakonda be any different?

Wakonda Technologies said Wednesday that it has raised $9.5 million to pursue development of the ideal solar cell, one that is highly efficient and low cost.

In spite of the claim--or perhaps because of it--the company is releasing few technical details.

Wakonda, which recently moved to Medford, Mass., had its series A round funded by Advanced Technology Ventures, General Catalyst Partners, Polaris Venture Partners, the Massachusetts Green Energy Fund, and Applied Ventures, which is the venture capital arm of Applied Materials.

Broadly speaking, Wakonda's ambition is to drive down the cost of manufacturing solar cells while mimicking the efficiency of the expensive solar cells used on satellites and solar concentrators. It received an award last year from the National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) for its technology.

On its Web site, Wakonda describes its technology as a "virtual single crystal (that) uses a proprietary surface treatment that allows a low cost, commercial metal foil to simulate an expensive single crystal wafer."

The plan is to have a proof of concept in about 12 months, according to Bill Wiberg, a general partner at Advanced Technology Ventures.

Although solar is one of the hottest areas of clean-tech investing, there are fewer and fewer opportunities in solar photovoltaic cells, say investors.

Concentrating-solar-thermal companies that make electricity from the sun's heat are receiving the most money, while a number of thin-film solar cell companies have formed over the past five years.

Wiberg claims that Wakonda Technologies, which had been developing its technology with the Rochester Institute of Technology, is different from most solar plays in that it has the potential to offer a breakthrough.

"It's a challenging area because there are hundreds of good, clever incremental ideas to improve efficiency by 1 or 2 percent," he said. "If you look at that as a broad group, it's hard to discern which ideas will be a standalone company."

Wiberg declined to provide any details on Wakonda's approach. But he did say that as an investment, it could yield high-efficiency, low-cost cells. Another outcome would be either significantly lower cost or only improved efficiency, he said.