JA Solar Holdings Co. (JASO), a Chinese solar-cell manufacturer, has teamed up with a U.S. start-up in a deal that points Chinese solar interest in advancing new technologies.
Innovalight Inc. and JA Solar agreed to co-develop solar cells whose sunlight-to-power conversion efficiencies would exceed 20%. The current efficiencies that JA Solar has achieved using inks from Innovalight are 18.9%.
JA Solar also signed a commercial agreement to buy inks from Innovalight for three years. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based start-up makes silicon nanocrystal inks that cover solar wafers to improve the power output of solar cells.
"The acceleration of [the Chinese solar industry's] investment in research and development shouldn't be underestimated," said Conrad Burke, chief executive and president of Innovalight, in an interview.
Burke said that the Chinese solar industry is investing seriously in R&D, and hiring engineers to compete. JA, for example, has more than doubled its spending on R&D over the past three years, to 343.3 million yuan ($50.7 million) in 2009 from CNY150.3 million in 2007. That equates to about a tenth of its revenue last year.
Chinese solar companies "have increased [R&D] moderately as a percentage of revenue, but what is exciting to me is the capacity they are adding in next generation" products, wrote Jeff Osborne, an analyst with investment bank Thomas Weisel, in an email. He said that companies such as JA Solar, Suntech Power Holdings Co. (STP), and Yingli Green Holdings Co. (YGE) are focusing on efficiency gains as they expand manufacturing.
Innovalight's interest in JA Solar doesn't lie in the fact that the company is in China, but rather that it's already in the top five of solar-cell manufacturers globally, having launched operations in 2005. "It behooves us to work with the biggest and the best," said Burke.
Innovalight is backed by investors including Apax Partners, ARCH Venture Partners, Convexa Capital, Harris & Harris Group, Sevin Rosen Funds, Triton Ventures and Singapore-based EDB Investments and Vertex Venture Holdings. The company is expanding the manufacturing of its inks in California, said Burke.
Other companies have recognized that co-development with Chinese companies is important. Duke Energy (DUK), for example, is working with China Huaneng Group, one of China's biggest power producers, on carbon sequestration for coal plants.