This week Heliatek raised E80m in equity, grant and debt funding to build a significant new roll-to-roll manufacturing line in Dresden, almost doubling the size of the company. But the process hasn’t been easy, and despite over €140m of funding over the last ten years, the company is still very much in a startup mindset.
“Raising this kind of money in Europe for hardware for solar is not easy,” said Thibauld Le Séguillon, CEO since 2011. “It’s counter-cyclical. Funding for solar was very hot five to six years ago, hardware was hot three to four years ago but today it’s mostly software. But we did it – I think we are offering something unique that will enable distributed energy generation. We have the potential to create a multibillion euro company – the market is just incredible,” he said.
The money will fund a completely new 1.2m wide roll-to-roll system, adding to the 30cm line that has been running since 2012 producing the 250nm thick flexible photovoltaic HeliaFilm.
“We will build new manufacturing capacity to produce a million square metres a year of Heliafilm – we are currently producing a few tens of thousands of square metres, very little,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges – we have more customers than capacity and this made this round possible as those customers were asking us to produce more and talked to our investors.”
The deal is not just about expanding existing capacity, which could be done with customer financing, or even buying a bigger machine.
“There is a twist in our story, as we will purchase and install a new tool that has never been done at this scale in the world, so it is still an innovation story,” said Le Séguillon. “We feel we have addressed the risk by running a small tool the last four years and our customers are not ready to take that risk. Now we are moving from 30cm wide to 1.2m wide and we are going to be the first ones in the world to do this.”
“We have chosen not to have a turnkey supplier as we are going to keep different suppliers for the different processes, as that’s one of the barriers to entry. Part of the integration will be done by Heliatek by buying the large components and integrating them.”
“We have built three barriers around Heliatek,” said Le Séguillon. “The first is the raw materials, where we build our own molecules for the raw materials and we patent them. The second is the physics of the device – we have both patents and trade secrets and it’s almost impossible to reverse engineer our film as it is just 250nm think. The third is the equipment as we don’t go to a turnkey supplier.”
“We know we are going to be copied but we want to make it as difficult for friendly competition. The only way we are going to keep being the world leader is through R&D,” he said.
The move to 1.2m wide will make installation on glass windows, concrete walls and roofing much simpler and more cost effective. “The building elements we are targeting such as glass and precast concrete are 1.2m or larger so it will be less labour intensive for customers to install the film. It will be one film with one connector rather than four films with four connectors so the savings will be significant,” he said.
One of the interesting trends is have film over windows to generate power, and the company is developing molecules that absorb in the ultraviolet bands. These can be used in films alongside alongside infrared molecules that are just coming into production and molecules that absorb visible light. The new roll-to-roll machinery will allow all three to be used in a single film for windows that generate power.
However he sees more immediate potential in the existing film on roofs. “Transparency is nice and plays a role but we think more mundane buildings will have a solar film on them faster. There are millions of square metres of roofing in boring buildings such as light industrial units that that cannot take the weight of traditional silicon [photovoltaic] cells.”
For example, the port of Duisberg has 2m square metres of roof they want to equip with film. “That’s one customer and two years of our expanded production capacity so this is clearly the start of the story and I feel it will go fairly fast,” he said.
The consolidation in the power industry is not an issue for Helitek, as it is customers and integrators that source and install the power inverters that connect the film to the energy grid. What is making a difference though is the acquisition by utility companies.
“What’s really critical for us is the utility companies are taking a 90% turn in their strategy to go to distributed power generation and that’s very good for us,” said Le Séguillon. “They are putting resources behind the new strategy with acquisitions and that’s very good for us.”
He has no plans to expand into the systems market. “Right now our strategy is to stay as an active film manufacturer,” he said. “We need to be successful in this before we can grow in other areas – I learned a long time ago that focus is success.”
“We are a survivor,” he said. “We have chosen a very difficult path – we are developing new technology, new manufacturing and new markets, where usually you pick one of the three. That’s why it needs resources and it needs time.”