Goldwind, Legal & General and Equinor have all taken part in a series D that achieved a $41m first close and boosted the Oxford spinout’s total equity and debt to more than $118m.

Last October, the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a landmark report warning that humanity only has a dozen years left to avoid a climate catastrophe that would lead to extreme heat in parts of the world, leading to climate refugees, force hundreds of millions of people into poverty and increase the risk of drought and floods. Coral reefs – fantastically complex ecosystems for marine life – would be completely destroyed in a process known as bleaching with far reaching consequences for our oceans.
The only way to stop all of this from happening was for society to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the report declared. This remained achievable and actually lies within the limits dictated by the Paris agreement, which pledged to keep the increase to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius.
In 2015, the carbon footprint of a US resident was 15.5 metric tons, roughly on par with Canada (15.3 metric tons) and Australia (15.8 metric tons) but more than three and a half times as much as the carbon footprint of a French person (4.3 metric tons) and more than twice as much as a resident in the UK (5.9 metric tons) and China (6.5 metric tons). Germany, the European Union’s largest economy, came in at 8.9 metric tons per citizen, according to figures published by intergovernmental organisation the International Energy Agency.
Yet political will to enact tough laws to curb emissions remains almost entirely non-existent. In some instances – notably the US – government policy is actually to support coal, one of the worst offenders when it comes to polluting the environment. Despite Trump’s campaign promises to revive the coal industry, however, plants fortunately continue to close at a rapid rate because the cost of wind and solar power is dropping so fast that it simply is not worth it for companies to rely on coal.
With hundreds of thousands of school children all over the world protesting politicians’ inaction over the climate crisis last week, following the example set by their 16-year-old peer Greta Thunberg from Sweden in August 2018, it appears clear that this unwillingness to act will not be tolerated by those who arguably matter most – the next generation of voters.
Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last week. Should she be chosen as the laureate, she would be the youngest person to ever receive the prize, such is the scale of the problem and her impact that a recognition normally afforded to people much older could be hers by the end of the year.
But even with a lack of political will, there is much regular citizens can do in their everyday life, such as taking a train over the car or plane, buying local, seasonal product rather than strawberries shipped in from the other side of the world in the middle of winter, or avoiding cruise ship holidays – a single ship produces as many emissions in one day as a million cars.
Consumers can also switch energy providers to one that exclusively relies on renewable energy or install solar roof panels.
It is the latter area where Oxford Photovoltaics (PV), a UK-based solar cell technology spinout from University of Oxford, is hoping to make a significant impact.
The spinout achieved a first close of £31m ($41m) in series D funding led by wind turbine manufacturer Goldwind on Friday, with participation from energy company Equinor and Legal & General Capital, the corporate venturing arm of insurance provider Legal & General.
Seeing an insurance firm invest in a solar energy technology producer may seem counterintuitive at first, but climate change poses a significant threat to the industry – to name but two threats, more fires mean more homes destroyed, while more pollution means more health issues such as respiratory diseases.
John Bromley, head of clean energy at Legal & General Capital, and Ingunn Svegården, investment director at Equinor, echoed each other’s thoughts, stating: “We continue to believe in the potential for the technology to deliver low cost solar solutions. We have been impressed by the achievements so far and look forward to supporting the company in the next phase towards commercial product.”
Oxford PV was founded in 2010 to commercialise thin, electrically conductive films that are attached to solar cells to boost the performance of silicon photovoltaics, thus generating higher energy output and making solar panels even more viable.
The films are made of perovskite, a mineral that is capable of absorbing higher amounts of solar energy than current alternatives.
The technology is based on work conducted by Prof Henry Snaith, who leads the Photovolatic and Optoelectronic Device Group in the Department of Physics at University of Oxford. Snaith co-founded the spinout with serial entrepreneur Kevin Arthur, who served as founding chief executive until 2015.
Today, the spinout operates both a research and development facility in Oxford and an industrial pilot plant in Berlin, Germany. It expects to license its first commercial product to select manufacturing partners.
The series D funding will be put towards moving the technology into the commercial phase. The spinout did not specify a target size for the series D round, but has now raised more than $118m in equity and debt financing.
Legal and General Capital and Statoil Energy Ventures, the strategic investment unit of energy producer Statoil, injected $11.2m in April 2018, after the same two backers had already taken part in a $20.9m series C in 2016 alongside unnamed investors across two tranches.
European Investment Bank, the nonprofit long-term lending institution of the European Union, awarded a $15.6m grant to Oxford PV in 2017. The spinout’s other shareholders include University of Oxford, Parkwalk Advisors, MTI Partners, Longwall Venture Partners and a range of individual investors.
Xiao Zhiping, vice-president at Goldwind, said: “Goldwind’s investment in Oxford PV supports our commitment to innovation that delivers clean, cost efficient renewable energy. It is our belief that photovoltaics and wind power will become an increasingly important part of the global energy mix, over the next 20 years.
“We have been impressed with Oxford PV, their perovskite photovoltaic technology and the pace of their progress, and we look forward to supporting the company going forward.”
Frank Averdung, chief executive at Oxford PV, added. “Goldwind’s investment in Oxford PV and the continued support of our existing shareholders, demonstrates the confidence in our technology and its commercial readiness.
“We are delighted to have investors that recognise the capability of our perovskite solar cell technology to transform the performance of silicon-based photovoltaics and the role it will play in the global transition to a clean energy future.”
A series D round of $41m may not seem like an obvious reason for a Big Deal – even as a first close – but the technology Oxford PV is  working on is not only fascinating, it is groundbreaking to the point where it could, quite literally, help save the planet. As far as a university’s mission to create impact goes, achievements really do not come any bigger.
When Thunberg gave her speech to the UN in December 2018, she remarked: “For 25 years countless people have come to the UN climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise.
“So, I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future. I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.”
It is truly heartening to see the younger generations fight for their future survival. And while Thunberg may have been referring to the courage of her peers to take to the streets rather than technological solutions, it is equally heartening to know that academic researchers are out there ensuring that renewable energy will continue to rapidly become a viable alternative to power our growing energy needs.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).