Sequoia-Backed Alion Seeks Funding for Solar-Installing Robots

Alion Inc., a closely held company developing robotic systems that construct and clean solar farms, is seeking $25 million from investors to build its initial fleet of machines and expand internationally, according to Chief Executive Officer Mark Kingsley.

The company has received $10 million and is seeking as much as $15 million more as part of its Series C financing round, Kingsley said in an interview in San Francisco.

Automating the process will lower costs and help make solar power more competitive with fossil fuels, Kingsley said.

“This is a natural evolution,” he said “When you get at scale, you’re always going to bring in automation. We’ve hit an inflection point where the automation has been in the factories, and it’s now time to take it out of the factory.”

Alion, based in Richmond, California, is developing machinery that automates the installation of solar farms, reducing required labor by as much as 75 percent and doing the work twice as fast as a normal crew, Kingsley said.

Eight of the company’s current machines can build a 50-megawatt project in about 12 weeks. The next version will be able to do the same job with four systems. The company also has robots that clean solar panels once projects go into operation.

Cheaper Solar

“Solar’s portion of the energy pie is really small, and the reason is because it’s too expensive,” said Jesse Atkinson, Alion’s vice president of marketing and business development. “When we get to 6-cent power, or we get into the fives, then we’re competitive with natural gas.”

Alion is building three projects this year in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and China ranging from 1 megawatt to 5 megawatts in capacity. Kingsley wouldn’t name the customers.

Alion will own the robots and and provide their services for a fee.

Alion has raised a total of about $60 million in debt and equity, Kingsley said. Investors include Sequoia Capital, Bright Capital and Global Cleantech Capital.

The company was formerly known as SunPrint and manufactured printable, thin-film solar panels. It changed its strategy to focus on reducing installation and maintenance costs.

“We realized that panels were evolving, and so we stopped the efforts in thin film,” said Kingsley, who previously worked for ABB Ltd.’s robotics unit and served as chief commercial officer at the Chinese panel-maker Trina Solar Ltd. “Our goal is to change the methodology of how large scale solar is built, so that more solar gets built.”

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