Cannon-Brookes backs UNSW solar cell start-up, founded in a Maroubra garage

High profile Australian investors including Mike Cannon-Brookes’ Grok Ventures have tipped $5 million into Sydney start-up SunDrive, in support of its quest to make a new breed of cheaper, more efficient solar cells.

A fundraising round led by Grok and fellow VC firm Blackbird Ventures this week took the total raised for the young company to $8 million, including a $3 million grant awarded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency at the beginning of this month.

SunDrive’s technology proposes to replace the growing use of silver in solar cells – a key barrier to the broader adoption of next generation technologies – with copper, which is significantly cheaper and more readily sourced.

The technology was originally developed by SunDrive CEO Vince Allen during his PhD at the University of New South Wales. Allen went on to found SunDrive in a Maroubra garage in 2015 with his flatmate from his undergraduate studies, David Hu.

And it clearly holds promise, with Australia’s “Sun King” and UNSW alumnus Zhenghrong Shi stepping up as SunDrive’s first angel investor. Shi is also on the company’s board, as is Sylvia Tulloch, the founder of fellow Australian solar innovator Dyesol.

The new round of funds will go towards SunDrive’s $9 million plans to produce a commercial-size PV module – made up of between 60 and 72 individual cells – for use on household rooftops, which will include the development of a small-scale automated production line prototype.

The money will also help the company to move from Wollongong to Kirrawee, in south Sydney, where it will scale its operations and to expand its team from six to 16 staff.

“Everything that we are trying to do is very ambitious. We need the best people on board, and that includes the best investors,” Allen said in a statement via ARENA.

“We’re only at the very early stages of where the industry can be with only 3 per cent of the world’s electricity currently coming from solar. If we want to get to 50, 60, 70 per cent and beyond, we’re going to need a lot more solar cells and that’s a massive challenge,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of ARENA, the agency’s CEO Darren Miller said it was exciting to see an Australian solar startup at the forefront of the next generation of solar cells – and to see it being backed by some of Australia’s biggest renewable energy investors.

“The current solar cells we use, while having served us well, have almost reached their efficiency limits,” Darren Miller said.

“As we transition to renewable energy, the solar industry needs to continually evolve and adopt new cell structures that increase efficiencies, reduce costs and employ more abundant materials.

“Through technological innovations from startups like SunDrive, Australia will continue to remain at the forefront of solar innovation and research and development for years to come,” he said.

The Series A is a second investment for Blackbird, which stumped up for SunDrive’s seed round in 2018. According to Startup Daily, Blackbird’s founding partner Niki Scevak has also joined SunDrive’s board.

“We see a future world where the cost of solar will be dominated by raw material costs and Australia is probably the best positioned country in the world to take advantage of this,” Allen told Startup Daily.

“We have some of the largest quantities of raw materials for solar manufacturing, including silicon and the second highest reserves of aluminium, copper and nickel. We have an opportunity on the sunniest continent in the world to make something of these and export solar energy all around the world.”


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