Konarka moves to next level

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By FRANK TUTALO Sun Staff

LOWELL Marking a significant milestone, solar technology startup Konarka Technologies Inc. has landed $13.5 million in a second round of venture capital funding.

The University of Massachusetts Lowell-spawned company now boasts deep-pocketed investors like ChevronTexaco and Eastman Chemical, a sign that giants in both the energy and chemical sectors have significant interest in Konarka's technology.

"In today's market, raising money is challenging, and it takes quite a bit of work, and quite a bit of time," said Konarka's chief operating officer, Paul Wormser.

The venture capital enables the company to run its operations for roughly two years, Wormser said, adding that executives had been searching for more operating cash for seven months. The company had received $1 million in its first round of funding.

Founded in June 2001, Konarka's focus is making photovoltaic cells which harness sunlight for several types of products cheaper than other companies do in already-marketed applications.

One Konarka contributor, Cambridge-based ZeroStage Capital, invested $500,000 in seed money some two years ago. Other investors included leader Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Ardesta LLC and NextGen Partners, as well as ChevronTexaco and Eastman Chemical, Wormser said.

The funding comes as Konarka's 25 employees are settling into new digs at the Boott Mill, which has allowed the company to nearly triple its lab and office space since moving last month from a 5,000-square-foot space inside the Wannalancit Mill.

"I think it's an outstanding example of not just how to retrofit an old building with labs, but also of how to keep on using an old mill similar to its original use," Wormser said.

And, it's a further sign that venture capital is again perking up in the region, with five other Greater Lowell companies seeing a combined influx of more than $85 million over the last two weeks.

Konarka isn't aiming its technologies at markets already brimming with competition, like solar-power calculators, Wormser noted. Rather, it's looking at a myriad of "off-grid" applications, some of which would be used in places inhabited by roughly two billion people where conventional power does not reach.

The formation of Konarka is the result of work done by Sukant Tripathy, an accomplished scientist and engineer who dreamed of bringing electricity to impoverished regions like his hometown in India. Tripathy, 48, drowned while on vacation in Hawaii two years ago.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed, though. Already, Konarka has a $2 million contract with the U.S. Army Labs in Natick.

"Konarka is stronger than ever," said Chairman Howard Berke in a written statement. "We now have the funds to develop our core technology and bring it to market."