Solar power company receives venture capital funds

Solar power company receives venture capital funds

CHAMPAIGN – SmartSpark Energy Ventures has received what it calls "significant" funding from a venture capital company to help make solar energy more efficient and affordable.

The 4-year-old company in the University of Illinois Research Park got the investment from Battery Ventures, which has offices in Boston, Menlo Park, Calif., and Israel. Jason Matlof will represent Battery Ventures on SmartSpark's board of directors.

SmartSpark President Rick Krein would not disclose how much of a stake Battery Ventures took in SmartSpark in terms of either dollars or percentage of ownership.

But he said SmartSpark plans to stay in Champaign-Urbana, a strategy Battery Ventures endorsed.

"That's one of the reasons we like them," Krein said. "Most guys want you to move to the West Coast. That would be disruptive, and it didn't make any practical sense at all."

Battery Ventures' investment will be used to develop SmartSpark's SolarBridge line, which aims to promote solar power by lowering the cost and increasing the reliability of inverters used in solar energy systems.

Inverters convert the direct-current power generated by solar panels to alternating-current power used by homes and businesses.

Krein said to install a solar energy system in a home, a person would typically have to put solar panels on the roof. Then, a specialized electrician would have to connect those to an inverter to get the alternating current needed for household appliances.

Roughly one-third of a solar energy system's cost comes from the silicon cells, Krein said. Another third comes from the electronics, including the inverter. The remaining third comes from the installation.

Krein said SolarBridge addresses the costs associated with the electronics and installation. The small SolarBridge inverter would attach directly to the solar panel, optimize power from that panel and turn it into alternating current.

SolarBridge would also help increase the life of the system, Krein said. Inverters often run into problems five or 10 years down the road, but the SolarBridge inverter is projected to provide about a 25-year life, he said.

Battery Ventures' infusion of capital will help SmartSpark develop SolarBridge and take it through certification, Krein said. Some portions of the system have already been designed, and others have been computer-simulated.

SmartSpark is getting ready to produce lab models, he said.

"We think the time is right," Krein said, noting the price of oil has been hovering between $80 and $90 a barrel. "I don't think it's going to go down much."

In a telephone interview, Battery Ventures' Matlof said he had been looking for companies making microinverters for solar applications and was swayed by SmartSpark's "very novel technology."

Matlof, a partner in the Menlo Park, Calif., office, called the SmartSpark team "a great group of entrepreneurs" and said he saw no reason at this point to suggest a move for the firm.

In a news release, he called SmartSpark "an exciting investment" because the company has "the potential to change the economics of solar" with technology that reduces the cost of installation while increasing reliability and output.

He said the cost and complexity of solar energy systems must come down if they are to be widely adopted.

Krein said SmartSpark will benefit from Battery Ventures' management expertise, industry contacts and operational knowledge of the solar, "clean-tech" and semiconductor markets.

Battery Ventures has been investing in technology since 1983. Since that time, it has raised $3 billion in capital and supported many companies, including Akamai Technologies, Cbeyond and Neoteris.

SmartSpark has two other product lines: BattEQ and ForeverPower.

BattEQ is a battery equalizer that extends the life and safety of rechargeable batteries, said Brian Precious, SmartSpark's director of marketing and business development. That product is being targeted to batteries used in electric vehicles.

ForeverPower is a power system that increases life and reliability in units used in remote locations for long periods. Possible applications include traffic monitoring and weather monitoring.

But Krein said the market for SolarBridge is believed to be greater than the markets for BattEQ and ForeverPower.

"Whereas the market for the other products is tens of millions of dollars, the market for SolarBridge is in the billions," he said.

SmartSpark has seven full-time employees and six part-time employees. Krein said the company plans to hire an office manager soon and has openings for a vice president of engineering and three additional people in engineering.

"We'll probably add a couple of part-time people as well," he said.

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