Solibro – from academic research to big industrial company

The solar cell company Solibro has made the long journey from academic research through a start-up company to being a part of a big multinational industrial group. Solibro Research remains based in Uppsala with some thirty employees.

Solibro AB was founded in 2003 by Professor Lars Stolt and some of his coworkers at Uppsala University’s Ångström Solar Center. Their goal was to commercialize a special technology for the development and manufacturing of solar cells based on a material called

CIGS – Copper Indium Gallium Selenide.  The CIGS modules are composed of layers of very thin films applied on glass.

“The extreme thinness of the material means great savings in terms of material as well as energy at the manufacturing, compared to traditional silicon-based solar cells,” Lars Stolt explains. “Our business idea was thus to develop solar panels with almost as high efficiency as traditional panels, but significantly cheaper to produce and with less impact on the environment.”

It soon became obvious that big investments during several years would be required in order to create a company for the production of solar cell panels. In the first stage the Swedish Energy Agency contributed half of the capital, with Vattenfall, Sydkraft, ABB, Energy Future Invest and the 6th AP Fund as other major investors.

UU Holding also contributed with seed capital, and with Uppsala University as a part-owner the company’s credibility was enhanced in the eyes of other potential investors and partners. When Solibro eventually developed into a full-scale industrial operation UU Holding, in accordance with its business philosophy, could divest its ownership share and reinvest the proceeds in new start-up companies.

Clear milestones

“We chose a strategy with a number of clearly defined steps in which we developed the technology and demonstrated its feasibility,” says Lars Stolt. “In this way we could prove that our production method had high capacity, good process control and was cost-effective before we moved on and looked for investments for the following step.”

One important milestone was the construction of a scale-up plant in Uppsala that was ready in 2005. Thereby the step was taken from the experimental cells worked on at the Ångström Laboratory to films of 120 x 60 cm size suitable for real products. For the next big step, to manufacture and sell full-size panels commercially, there were then various options.

“As we were making plans for building a plant for producing full-scale prototypes several external parties were beginning to show interest. There was now a number of big companies that wanted to invest in Solibro, or acquire the company and the technology.”

The choice fell on a leading German solar cell company, Q-Cells AG, to which the main part of the stocks in Solibro AB was divested. A new company, Solibro GmbH, was started and a production plant was constructed in Bitterfeld-Wolfen north of Leipzig. An Uppsala-based subsidiary, Solibro Research AB, was formed to handle the continued research and development work. The first part of the new factory was opened in 2008, a milestone that meant that Solibro had reached all the way from research to commercial production and sales. A little more than a year later an additional part of the top modern factory was opened, today it has some 400 employees.

Tough competition

But soon thereafter Q-Cells encountered severe financial problems. Chinese competitors started selling cheap solar cell modules that took over the market from the traditional silicon modules that still made up the major part of Q-Cells product range. In April 2012 the German company was forced to file for bankruptcy and the fate of Solibro now rested in the hands of a trustee.

“But the trustee kept us alive and eventually found a good solution,” says Lars Stolt.

The solution meant that the Chinese company Hanergy bought the Solibro companies. Today both Solibro GmbH and Solibro Research AB are subsidiaries within the Hanergy group. To complement the factory in Germany and supply the Chinese market the construction of a new production facility in China has been started. In Uppsala some thirty persons are working at the research facility with the further development of the technology.

Development for the future

“Our original business idea was to make solar cell panels that were nearly as good as silicon-based panels, but cheaper. At the time no one could image that the price of silicon panels would drop as dramatically as it eventually did. We are now working to further increase the efficiency of our thin film panels. In order for us to remain successful it must become at least as high as that of silicon panels.”

There are also other advantages with the CIGS panels that Solibro can exploit. One is the fact that they are considered to be better looking, which makes them attractive to homeowners, among others. A few years ago a cooperation between Hanergy and IKEA was started, where Hanergy sells solar cell panels at IKEA stores in the UK, Holland and Switzerland.

In Uppsala a newly constructed building has been covered with 675 square meters of CIGS panels that produce some 70,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The CIGS modules can also function as roofing material, this has recently been demonstrated on a school in Knivsta.

Solibro has achieved the feat of taking an academic research idea all the way to the world market. There is still collaboration with Uppsala University. In addition to the scientific exchange Solibro Research rents premises and equipment at the Ångström Laboratory. Since 2014 Lars Stolt is also an adjunct professor at the university.

“I’d like to work for increased collaboration between Solibro and the university. The closeness to the university research is important to the company, and we can share our experiences with new entrepreneurs,” says Lars Stolt.

Lars Stolt, PhD
Founder and CTO

Writer: Thomas Nordanberg