Picasolar Gets New Funding, Works to Scale Innovative Solar Cell

Picasolar Gets New Funding, Works to Scale Innovative Solar Cell
Picasolar CEO Douglas Hutchings displays one of the solar cells his company is developing as part of a federal intitiative.

Having just received federal SunShot Initiative funding and a $1.2 million round of equity capital, Fayetteville's Picasolar will spend the next 10 to 12 months scaling its innovative solar cells to meet the industry standard. 

Picasolar developed a type of solar cell — technically, a self-aligned, hydrogenated selective emitter for N-type solar cells — that has been tested to improve the efficiency of solar cells by 15 percent. Picasolar CEO Douglas Hutchings believes it could represent the largest leap in solar tech in 40 years

Picasolar last month received an $800,000 SunShot Tier 1 Incubator Award from the U.S. Department of Energy to further develop its patent-pending process, a follow-up to a $500,000 SunShot grant awarded to Silicon Solar Solutions of Fayetteville, an Innovate Arkansas client firm and sister company to Picasolar.

Picasolar and Silicon Solar are now operating as one entity, and will move forward as Picasolar. The grants to Picasolar and Silcon Solar represent the first SunShot awards made to Arkansas companies. In the solar field, SunShot recognition is considered one of the most prestigious awards a company can attain.

Last week, Picasolar announced the million dollar round, which included $600,000 from private investors that was matched by the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. Hutchings told the University of Arkansas Newswire that Picasolar represented the first Arkansas investment for some of the private interests.

"These investments are crucial toward helping Picasolar grow as a company," he said.

Next up is working with its research partners, Georgia Tech, German solar firm Roth & Rau and Chinese solar company Yingli Solar, to scale up the Picasolar cell. The industry standard size for solar cells is 6x6 inches. A typical solar panel is made up of 60 such cells. Picasolar's equipment currently is limited to 4.1 inches, but the company is building a larger version which can handle a small number of 6-inch cells.

Picasolar and its partners plan to deliver the 6-inch cells to the SunShot folks in about nine or 10 months, and Hutchings hopes to begin making industrial-scale equipment in Arkansas.

One of the firm's Series A investors has manufacturing space in Fort Smith (Hutchings couldn't disclose exactly where) that Picasolar could use. If that doesn't work out, manufacturing space could be available at the Enterprise Center, part of the UA's Arkansas Research & Technology Park that already calls Picasolar home.

"We'd like to use existing infrastructure if we can," Hutchings said.

Once manufacturing ramps up, the company projects employing about 55 workers at an average salary of $71,000 a year. But first, Picasolar and its partners have to scale their technology.

"Once we have the full module complete that shows improvements, our goal would be to secure capital to get a manufacturing site," he said.

All Picasolar's work goes through rigorous third-party validation through the National Renewable Energy Lab. "You don't want to scale it before you nail it," Hutchings said.

Picasolar now employs eight full-time workers, seven of them with UA degrees. Hutchings himself is a UA grad, earning his doctorate in microelectronics-photonics in 2010. Seth Shumate, Picasolar CTO and technology inventor, is a doctoral candidate in microelectronics-photonics.

In 2011, Hutchings and Shumate were named to Inventors Digest's list of top new U.S. inventors.

Looking past the immediate scale up for SunShot, Hutchings said building a sustainable business and producing exit scenarios is desirable, of course, but he and his Picasolar co-workers want to build it the company in Arkansas.

"That's the goal," he said. "Everyone involved has fought pretty hard to create jobs here because they didn't want to leave the state."

Picasolar may be familiar to some because of its success as a UA graduate-level business plan team. In 2013, it won more than $300,000 in cash prizes at international competitions competing against Ivy League sachools and teams from some of the world's leading business schools including a win at the prestigious MIT NSTAR Clean Energy Prize contest.

Plus, London-based entrepreneur and angel investor Permjot Valia, who has invested in northwest Arkansas startups and supports the state's startup ecosystem, told Innovate Arkansas in 2013 that Picasolar potentially was one of several billion dollar plays in the state.  

Gene Eagle, ADFA president, told the UA Newswire that his agency was pleased to partner with Picasolar.

"This company has a strong team with experience and skills to move the company forward," he said. "Emerging businesses like Picasolar are significant creators of new, high-paying jobs in Arkansas."