Sunfolding, an inventive solar tracker startup, has shut down
Sunfolding, a solar startup backed by venture capital and featuring an innovative pneumatic tracker solution, is closing its doors. A former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the news and pointed out that the 11-year-old company’s failure was primarily due to issues with manufacturing and a lack of experience with solar projects.
According to a LinkedIn search, Glen Davis, the CEO, left the company in October. Based on their LinkedIn profiles, the majority of the executives that are still listed on Sunfolding’s leadership page are no longer employed by the company. According to a description on Y Combinator’s website that labels the business as “inactive,” Sunfolding once employed 44 people.
Solar panels are supported by steel-intensive, motor-driven structures called trackers, which enable the panels to track the sun throughout the day. A multibillion dollar industry, it’s expanding at the same pace as the thriving utility-scale solar business. Array Technologies and Nextracker, two publicly traded companies, dominate the market.
In order to move the solar panels, Sunfolding was creating a pneumatic tracker system that employed air pressure to expand and contract a flexible polymer bladder. In addition to enabling denser arrays on uneven terrain, the goal was to reduce costs associated with materials, operations, and maintenance.
From the look of its website, which lists several dozen operational deployments and roughly a dozen projects in the planning or construction stages, the startup appears to have made some headway with clients.
Leila Madrone founded Sunfolding in 2012, and in 2017 Y Combinator provided seed funding. In 2019, G2VP and Macquarie Group led a $32 million funding round for the startup. Crunchbase lists Elemental Excelerator, Alumni Ventures, Citylight Capital, and other investors in the company. Madrone used to work for NASA, GreenVolts, and Otherlab.
Saul Griffith, the founder of Rewiring America, Bruce Sohn, a cleantech board regular, Veery Maxwell, a partner at Galvanize Climate Solutions, and Ben Kortlang, general partner at venture capital firm G2VP, are among the members of Sunfolding’s board of directors.
Several requests for comment from Sunfolding executives, including former CEO Davis, went unanswered.
Because solar energy is the most affordable power source, whether renewable or not, the global solar industry is installing more than 1 gigawatt of solar every day, 365 days a year, and it is still expanding at full speed.
Though there are significant obstacles to breaking into a commodity electron business with drastically new hardware, it’s a sizable and growing market worthy of venture capital investment. The road to market is paved with extremely cautious and risk-averse developers, financiers, insurers, and accountants, but these obstacles aren’t always technical.
Of course, the harsh reality that faces all newcomers to the market must also be faced by solar startups: the great majority of venture-funded businesses ultimately fail or falter.