TAMPA, Fla. — Startup mPower Technology announced Feb. 1 that it has raised $10 million to ramp up production of silicon-based solar panels that gained a legacy of flight last summer.
Early-stage investment firm Cottonwood Technology Fund led the Series B funding round, joined by Hemisphere Ventures and other space investors.
That means the startup has raised $16.5 million since its spinoff from Sandia National Laboratories in 2015, according to mPower Technology CEO Kevin Hell.
Sandia, a government lab run by Honeywell International, had also invested about $20 million in research and development into the technology before spinning it off, according to Hell.
He said the spin-off has given mPower exclusive rights to solar technology it calls DragonSCALES, comprising interconnected photovoltaic cells that he says are more customizable than traditional cells on the market, more flexible and less expensive to produce with automated processes.
The technology first gained a legacy of flying aboard a small SpaceX satellite launched in June 2021 for Lynk Global, a startup developing a constellation of direct-to-cellphone connectivity.
Hell said DragonSCALES is also participating in other missions that “in several cases” are expected to launch in the first half of 2022.
The company plans to use its recently raised funds to expand its production facilities in New Mexico to produce DragonSCALES which, cumulatively, aims to be capable of producing 1.5 megawatts of electricity per year starting in the third quarter of 2022.
“[T]hat is pretty much the entire output of the existing traditional III-V [space solar cell] market to date, at least on a historical basis,” Hell said, referring to a technology that has used gallium arsenide semiconductor material for “about 30 years.”
DragonSCALES uses off-the-shelf, commercial silicon-based tools and processes that Hell says enables mPower to scale for a market it says will need more than 50 megawatts per year in five years.
An increase in constellations in low Earth orbit is mainly driving market demand, Hell added, in addition to electric orbit-raising systems, lunar missions and other emerging applications.
He estimated that a typical LEO satellite should generate around 1.5 kilowatts of power, although this could vary widely depending on mission requirements.
Since mPower sources its silicon from the terrestrial solar PV market, which is “orders of magnitude larger than the space market in terms of volume”, Hell expects supply chain shortages that weigh on the semiconductor industry have only a “rather modest impact”. about its expansion plans.
“And we’re buying the high end of that, so we’re going to be the last to be hit because the margin associated with the silicon that we’re buying is going to be a lot higher than, say, the traditional rooftop market [where] you buy solar panels for your house,” he said.
Going forward, he said DragonSCALES’ potential to generate energy in orbit to send back to Earth represents “another huge application” for the company.