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Published: Thursday, 5/2/2013

Execs: Outlook sunny at Xunlight solar firm

BY KRIS TURNER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Jasmine James, left, and Jonathan Smith assemble solar panels at Xunlight Corp.  The company has expanded past the 100-employee mark and is focusing on doubling its growth. Jasmine James, left, and Jonathan Smith assemble solar panels at Xunlight Corp. The company has expanded past the 100-employee mark and is focusing on doubling its growth.
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The progress being made at Xunlight Corp. is evident the minute you pull into its parking lot: Finding an empty space is difficult.

The parking situation is just one indication that things are on an upswing at the Toledo-based flexible-solar-panel manufacturer. The company has grown from about 40 employees to more than 100 in a year, and officials say it is on track to turn a profit by July.

The company completed more sales in the first four months of 2013 than it did in the last two years, said Dennis Kebrdle, Xunlight's chief transition officer. Mr. Kebrdle took over the company when its founder and former chief executive officer, Xunming Deng, stepped down in March, 2012.

“We're in Afghanistan,” Mr. Kebrdle said. “We just got put up on military tents today. We’re an integral part of MASH units, the power that goes up in the place. We've got small power out there too.”

The military is just one market Xunlight executives are targeting. They’re selling products geared toward boating, golfing, and other recreational activities and are in the midst of expanding the firm’s global footprint.

John Buckey, the president and chief operating officer of the privately held company, said the firm is winning contracts in emerging markets in Asia, South America, and Africa. By installing the company's flexible solar panels around light poles, on lightweight roofs, and in remote locations, Xunlight will create a demand for its products, he said.

Once people see that the technology works, the company can sell its machinery to manufacturers interested in producing their own panels, Mr. Buckey said. The company has a plan to franchise — Xunlight executives shy away from that term for legal reasons — its production system around the globe.

They say that machinery would retail for about $1.5 million, plus royalty fees.

Xunlight’s Mike Clark inspects solar panels for imperfections. Xunlight’s Mike Clark inspects solar panels for imperfections.
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Xunlight’s executives agreed that the company isn’t simply selling a product — it’s marketing an idea. They’re banking on that to carry Xunlight into the future, which is shaky ground for many traditional solar-panel manufacturers whose profits have been usurped by low-cost products and production in China.

“We’re not selling power,” Mr. Kebrdle said. “We’re selling mobility and freedom.”

Xunlight is operating at about 20 percent of its manufacturing capacity and could exceed 40 percent by the middle of the year, Mr. Kebrdle said.

As the firm adds more machinery, such as lamination ovens to process solar panels, it also will create jobs.

Mr. Kebrdle didn’t provide hard numbers for Xunlight’s projected employment growth.

Xunlight was founded from research conducted at the University of Toledo, where Mr. Deng was a professor. The company was funded with a mix of private and public dollars.

It received loans of $4 million from the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority and $4 million from the Ohio Enterprise Bond Fund. The Ohio Development Services Agency also awarded the company a job-creation tax credit of 55 percent for seven years, $291,500 for two work-training grants, and three Ohio Third Frontier grants in the amount of $6,969,848. Officials at both state agencies said the firm is in good standing with its loans.

The University of Toledo Innovation Enterprises contributed $3 million to Xunlight when it was founded. Part of the $3 million debt was converted to equity so UTIE could own equipment that was not in use at the firm.

Contact Kris Turner at: kturner@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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