Solar Manufacturers Find a Home in the Glass City

Dec. 6, 2011
Motivated investors, a robust research climate and the city's glass-manufacturing heritage are making Toledo a hot spot for solar startups.

Some executives might dread having their major investors drop by on a regular basis. For Bruce Larsen, though, it's one of the best parts of his job.

"I truly enjoy having my shareholders right here in town," says Larsen, who is CEO of the Toledo, Ohio-based solar startup Nextronex Inc. "And they just couldn't be more cooperative or supportive of our business."

Larsen attributes that support to "the entrepreneurial spirit of private investors in Toledo," without whom Nextronex "could have never gotten off the ground."

Nextronex, which makes grid-tie inverter systems for nonresidential and utility-scale solar installations, couldn't be much closer to its investors. The company has a 5,000-square-foot manufacturing operation on the campus of the University of Toledo, which provided venture-capital funding to Nextronex and has an incubator offering business services to alternative-energy startups.

Nextronex, which was founded in 2008, also received startup money from Rocket Ventures -- a $22.5 million public-private venture fund managed by the Toledo Regional Growth Partnership -- and from private investors in the Toledo area.

"We have several doctors and entrepreneurs who have invested in us," notes Larsen.

While cold, sometimes-gloomy Toledo might seem like an odd fit for the solar industry, it's becoming a hot spot for solar entrepreneurs, thanks to aggressive venture-capital financing, a robust research environment and what is becoming a critical mass of solar manufacturers in the area.

First Solar Inc. -- one of the world's largest manufacturers of photovoltaic modules -- originated in the laboratories of the University of Toledo and has a 900,000-square-foot plant in the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg.

The growing list of solar startups in the area now includes Xunlight Corp., which manufactures thin-film solar modules at a 122,000-square-foot facility just west of downtown Toledo. The company launched in 2002 to commercialize solar technology that was developed by co-founder and CEO Xunming Deng -- a UT professor -- in the university's thin-film silicon photovoltaic laboratory.

"There's a tremendous amount of knowledge and a wealth of experience in the solar industry here," Larsen says.

Clearly, the hub of that knowledge is UT, which houses the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization, a public-private partnership focused on reducing solar costs, improving technologies and transferring knowledge from laboratories to the production line; the University Clean Energy Alliance of Ohio, which coordinates collaboration among state universities in development and commercialization of energy-related technology; and its Clean and Alternative Energy Incubator.

But UT isn't the only game in town. Owens Community College, which offers an alternative-energy and sustainable-systems technology program, has trained several hundred solar technicians.

Toledo's emergence as a hotbed of solar activity hasn't happened by accident. Unified by the need to rebuild the city's crumbling manufacturing base, local leaders from academia, government and business have partnered to attract solar entrepreneurs to the area and provide the financing and support to help get startups off the ground.

In August, University of Toledo Innovation Enterprises -- UT's economic development arm -- and the Regional Growth Partnership formed Rocket Ventures LLC, which aims to "help companies commercialize their technology, support new technology-based firms and provide seed funding to attract external investment" in local companies, according to UT.

"We truly believe that we're at the heart of tomorrow's manufacturing-the new manufacturing economy," says Doug Born, vice president of business development for the Regional Growth Partnership.

With Toledo's heritage in glass manufacturing -- Owens-Illinois Inc., the world's largest glass-container manufacturer, is headquartered in Perrysburg -- it's "just a perfect, natural evolution from glass into solar," says John Gibney, vice president of marketing and communications for the Regional Growth Partnership.

Larsen, a former Owens-Illinois executive, agrees, noting that thin-film solar technology "was really born here."

"The glass that's used for the thin-film panels has to be coated, and that technology was developed locally," Larsen says. "With all the roots we have in solar, it's natural to see people in this area start to get involved in the other components of the solar array."

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