SVTC’s Laetz tips solar growth work, plans

May 5, 2008 – Solar capacity is rapidly expanding, with a lot of new players rushing into the market. More silicon supply is about to come online too, enabling more solar manufacturing, and increasing/speeding the likelihood of a market shakeout. “If you’re a manufacturer with no R&D resources to lower manufacturing costs, and a shakeout occurs, you’ll be one of the people at the bottom of the pile,” explained Kurt Laetz, managing director, strategic marketing, SVTC Technologies, in an interview with WaferNEWS. Many companies will be in need of a facility for development services, he summed, and SVTC says it can service them, both startups and large existing companies.

The hot-growth solar sector “was already on the radar” for the new VC owners of SVTC, Tallwood Ventures and Oak Hill Capital Partners, when they purchased SVTC from Cypress Semiconductor in March 2007, according to Laetz. To them, SVTC was “an excellent asset, a good business model that should be grown and expanded” beyond the core business of semiconductors into areas like MEMS and high-voltage — and also to areas like solar.

Soon SVTC began fielding inquiries from Silicon Valley-based PV companies too, and Laetz noted they are already servicing more than one PV company on its current CMOS line. “It’s a natural extension of our business, in response to the market we see developing,” he said. “In Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of VCs making investments in PV. They all need a place to do development work.”

Laetz told WaferNEWS that the solar unit is, not surprisingly, launching with silicon wafer capabilities and equipment, but is also talking with potential customers in GaAs and thin-film areas as well, and plans to have equipment and capacity in all three areas. “As next-generation technologies of solar come online, we anticipate servicing them also,” he said.

Early discussions have been held internally about future growth strategies for the PV business, including possibly expanding into Texas (more “organic” growth in that region, Laetz said), and even overseas — to “replicate the model wherever the industry is hot,” e.g. Germany, China, Japan, etc., he said. But for the time being SVTC is focusing on its own backyard, because there’s great growth potential in the US, California, and Silicon Valley specifically; there will be continued VC investments in solar startups locally; and putting in the new solar facility will spur some of that regional growth, with tools that solar manufacturers can use to get products to market faster at lower costs, he said.

The PR announcing the solar unit mentioned that SVTC’s solar business was being positioned to compete against global R&D centers such as Franhofer and “proprietary” groups in Japan. Laetz acknowledged that a lot of that positioning is a focus on regional capabilities, but added that SVTC’s business model focuses on developing technologies for manufacturing — “the capital-D of R&D,” where others focus on research and invention and whose models are less clear-cut about who owns the IP.

The new site for SVTC’s solar business is about 15mins away from its main facility, in the area of south San Jose near a budding “solar cluster” of companies including Nanosolar and Psion, Laetz said. Previous owner New Focus had put millions of dollars into the site but vacated it a few years ago, though kept running in good shape. The current cleanroom/labs layout should handle the proposed buildout of 25-30 customers in three years, Laetz said, and if need be there’s more office space available in the complex. J.M.


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