Solar firm with UT ties expanding <font color=red><font size=1><b>UPDATED</b></font></font>

4/25/2008
BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

A start-up solar energy firm with ties to the University of Toledo announced this morning that private investors will contribute $22.3 million to enable the metro area to have a second manufacturer of the alternative energy product in a year.

Xunlight Corp. plans to build a production line for thin-film, silicon-solar modules at its fledgling facility at 3145 Nebraska Ave., said Xunming Deng, company founder and a UT professor.

The new investment was announced Friday at a ceremony with Gov. Ted Strickland and officials from Trident Capital, a California venture capital firm. 'This will allow us to build a full-size production line,' Mr. Deng said. ' We're going to start building the line quickly, within the next two months. We've started engineering and design already, but a line like that takes a year to complete.'

More people will be hired, said the company's chief executive. The company has 45 employees, many of whom work on its pilot production line.

The new investment will enable the company to build a roll-to-roll production line and produce commercial photovoltaic products in high volume within its 122,000-square-foot facility.

Mark Iwanowski, a venture partner with Trident, and the former Chief Technology Officer for Oracle Corp., said he and his partners see 'almost limitless possibilities' from Xunlight, and especially its location in Toledo.

'When it comes down to building businesses, we sensed that there was an opportunity here, we really did, to grow where you have the resources, where you have industries like the auto industry and the glass industry with their specialized labor pools,' he said. 'There's a good transition to be able to move that kind of labor into green technology,'

Mr. Iwanowski said the support Xunlight has received from federal, state, and local officials, as well as from the University of Toledo, was impressive to him and his partners.

Xunlight founders Liwei Xu, left, and her husband, Xunming Deng, a professor at the University of Toledo, plan to expand the company s facility to make flexible solar panels.
Xunlight founders Liwei Xu, left, and her husband, Xunming Deng, a professor at the University of Toledo, plan to expand the company s facility to make flexible solar panels.

When the manufacturing begins next year, Xunlight will join First Solar Inc., a Tempe, Ariz. firm that was founded in Toledo and whose only North American production plant is in Perrysburg Township.

First Solar, with more than 600 workers, had the fastest growing stock on Wall Street last year and produces more than 2 million panels a year. Most of the two-foot-by-four-foot panels are shipped overseas to commercial solar installations.

Xunlight's solar panels are different than First Solar's panels. The former uses stainless steel and a different chemical compound than the latter.

Leading researchers told The Blade last year that Toledo is a top center internationally for research and manufacturing involving the technology that produces panels using sheets of glass. The goal is to produce an electricity-maker that is cheaper than what comes from a traditional power plant.

The broad contrast from metro Toledo's traditional automotive industry has attracted national media attention.

Trident Capital is Xunlight's third major investor. The start-up initially attracted $7 million from Emerald Technology Ventures and NGP Energy Technology Partners, both of which expanded their earlier stakes, Mr. Deng said.

'This is more than just an excellent investment opportunity,' said Mark Iwanowski of Trident. His firm, with more than $1.6 billion under management, expects Xunlight to be a leader in the world's photovoltaic industry.

Its research has been supported at UT, which is considered one of the top three university-based solar research programs nationally. It was started by Mr. Deng and his wife, Liwei Xu.

Since its founding in 2006 under a previous name, Xunlight has attracted public investment as well as private funds.

Lucas County gave the company a $2 million loan in December and the National Institute of Standards and Technology gave it a $3 million grant in September. It also has been granted more than $2 million in state and local tax credits in recent months.

Also in the Toledo area is a unit of Q-Cells AG, the German solar giant that is Europe's largest manufacturer of solar panels. It bought a Perrysburg firm to operate a research and development center that specializes in technology to try to reduce production costs.

Willard & Kelsey Solar Group LLC has told the state it expects to produce 1 million to 1.5 million panels a year, starting in July, in a former television components plant in Perrysburg Township.

Mr. Deng said the creation of a second thin-film silicon solar panel company, Xunlight 26 Solar LLC, which will focus its efforts on making electricity-producing panels with other materials, such as cadmium telluride.

The new company pairs Mr. Deng with his longtime associate from the University of Toledo, Al Compaan, a distinguished professor of physics. The Xunlight X26 this month was awarded a $997,000 grant from the state to continue development of its solar cells. Mr. Compaan said he hoped the new company, which he said was 'about two years behind Xunlight' in its development process, would grow along similar lines.

Metro Toledo got its start in solar power partly from its history as a glass-manufacturing center and the research of the late Harold McMaster, whose pioneering work with solar panels attracted the interest of retailing billionaire John Walton. His firm turned into First Solar.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: lvellequette@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.