Investors Still Hope To Change The Game In Solar; Money Goes To Thin Film Maker Stion

Stion this week announced one of the year’s largest private company solar investments, a $130 million financing of its thin-film module manufacturing technology. What the deal says is that some investors still believe they can change the game in solar.

The currently prevailing perception is that solar, and thin film in particular, are the graveyards of cleantech. Thin film company Solyndra went bust after more than $1 billion in venture money and a $535 million government loan guarantee. Thin film market leader First Solar, a public company, has seen its stock plummet to $34 a share as prices for rival Chinese made crystalline solar panels fell sharply.

Frank Yang, vice president of business development at Stion, says venture fundraising remains tough for solar companies. In fact, venture firms still willing to put money into solar startups are more likely to pick companies developing electronic components than cells.

Stion bucked the trend by attracting capital from Korean thin-film solar equipment maker AVACO, Korean private equity funds, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, General Catalyst Partners, Braemar Energy Ventures and Taiwan Semiconductor. VCs put $20 million into the deal, while $80 million came from private equity investors in Korea. Stion plans to build a factory in the Korea with the money and expand its plant in Hattiesburg, Miss.

The San Jose company has meanwhile demonstrated technology with a 14.1% efficiency, though its present modules boast efficiencies of about 12%. Yang says at 14%, thin film modules become competitive with crystalline silicon, shifting the competitive landscape.

If that is the case, solar could finally prove a more lucrative market to place bets.

Also among the year’s top solar deals are the $201 million financing of BrightSource Energy and $106 million round for thin film manufacturer MiaSole, according to data from the Cleantech Group. Both took place in the first quarter.