AQT Solar says its main innovation is a new business model

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AQT claims it can focus on just manufacturing thin-film CIGS cells, then pass those on to other companies, who will do the industrial work of putting them into existing solar module equipment that was developed for more expensive standard silicon cells.

Today’s existing CIGS companies by and large take the opposite approach. Companies like Nanosolar and Solyndra have worked for years to be able to manufacture complete systems, and had to take on huge amounts of outside funding in the process.

Nanosolar and Solyndra have taken over half a billion dollars each of outside investment to build huge manufacturing plants.

Michael Bartholomeusz, AQT’s CEO, said he thinks his company can get there with $50 million in external funding — a tenth as much. The company has only taken $4.75 million so far.

“We saw this approach of high-volume commodity manufacturing as a deficit in the thought-process, as it relates to thin-film PV,” says Bartholomeusz. “When you look at the time it takes companies to develop and manufacture a whole platform, it has taken a lot of years and a lot of capital.”

AQT’s entire business model actually relies on outside expertise; their production line for the solar cells is modified equipment from the data storage industry.

But Bartholomeusz says that AQT isn’t behind. On the contrary, testing from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows AQT’s cells to have passed 10 percent efficiency already, comparable to some cells from companies that have been around much longer. (Unfortunately, that has to be taken on faith for the moment; the NREL tests remain private.)

The company is just beginning manufacturing, and is already working on an early sale with an undisclosed partner. Provided it can get up to speed, it can begin selling its cells right away.

With its low capital outlays for development and equipment, Bartholomeusz is betting that AQT can build up enough cash to finance its own expansion and hit a gigawatt of production by 2014, with the end-product modules costing about 60 cents per watt. First Solar recently said it’s at about 78 cents.

Does AQT really have a chance? They’ll have to prove themselves in a market that has already defeated dozens of other thin-film companies, with only a relative handful still in operation.

But the claim of a revolutionary business strategy isn’t wholly out of line. In the solar installation business, companies like SolarCity and SunRun have made waves with better financing models, without breaking much ground technologically. Hopefully, AQT has stumbled onto something similar

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