Durham company banking on solar

Semprius raises venture capital

Staff WriterJune 10, 2009 

Durham semiconductor company Semprius is developing what it hopes will become the next generation of solar-energy devices with the help of $6.4 million in new venture capital.

Semprius managed to raise money from existing and new investors at a time when venture capital financing has withered as a result of the recession.

Semprius previously raised $4.1 million in April 2007.

"I'm sure that it was more difficult than it may have been 18 or 24 months ago," CEO Joe Carr said of the fundraising effort.

Semprius started raising money late last year, but "we pulled back and let the dust settle" because the venture capital market was in such turmoil, Carr said. It revived its efforts during the first quarter.

Electric utilities currently purchase most solar-generated electricity from consumers with solar panels on their roofs or solar farms operated by others, Carr said. But Semprius is developing solar devices for utilities that it says will be less costly and will generate electricity more cost- efficiently, although it's not yet discussing numbers.

"The utility companies really are becoming more active in the solar arena as the technology matures," Carr said.

Semprius' solar modules take advantage of technology licensed from the University of Illinois that allows it to make smaller semiconductors. Those semiconductors are combined with special lenses that concentrate sunlight 1,000-fold.

"We literally put 1,000 suns on every solar cell," Carr said.

But the product isn't yet ready for prime time.

"We have another 18 months of development work to finish up," Carr said. The company expects to have engineering prototypes available for utilities and national testing labs before the end of the year.

How big is the market for the product?

"At the right price point, it's almost insatiable," Carr said.

Founded in 2005, Semprius has 22 employees and is hiring about a half-dozen more -- engineers, material scientists and assembly technicians.

Durham venture capital firm Intersouth Partners is among Semprius' previous investors and also participated in the new financing.

New investors include In-Q-Tel, an investment firm affiliated with the CIA.

Currently, venture capitalists are wary about investing in companies that aren't yet close to profitability, Intersouth's Kip Frey said.

"Semprius kind of bucked the trend," Frey said. "It's a comment on the power of the technology."

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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