Innovative solar tracker startup Sunfolding has folded

Sources say the 11-year-old startup is winding down after struggling to gain a foothold in the multibillion-dollar solar tracker market.
By Eric Wesoff

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Two small, black inflated bags attached to the back side of a solar panel
Sunfolding's pneumatics-powered solar tracker (Sunfolding)

Sunfolding, a venture-capital-funded solar startup with a novel pneumatic tracker solution, is winding down its operations. The news was confirmed by a former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity and singled out manufacturing challenges and a lack of solar-project experience as key reasons for the 11-year-old company’s failure.

A LinkedIn check indicates that CEO Glen Davis wrapped up his tenure at the company in October. Most of the executive staff still listed on Sunfolding’s leadership page are no longer with the company, according to their LinkedIn profiles. At one time, Sunfolding had 44 employees, according to a description on Y Combinator’s site that categorizes the company as inactive.”

Trackers are steel-intensive, motor-powered structures that support solar panels and allow them to follow the sun over the course of the day. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry that’s growing at the same rate as the busy utility-scale solar business, and the market is led by publicly traded companies Nextracker and Array Technologies.

Sunfolding was developing a pneumatic tracker system that used air pressure to inflate and deflate a flexible polymer bladder to shift the solar panels. The goal was to save on materials, operations and maintenance, as well as to allow for denser arrays on uneven terrain.

The startup seems to have made some inroads with customers; its site lists several dozen operational deployments and about a dozen projects in the planning or construction phase.

Sunfolding was founded by Leila Madrone in 2012 and seed-funded by Y Combinator in 2017. The startup raised a $32 million financing round in 2019 from G2VP and Macquarie Group. Other investors in the firm include Citylight Capital, Alumni Ventures and Elemental Excelerator, according to Crunchbase. Madrone previously held positions at Otherlab, GreenVolts and NASA.

Sunfolding’s board members include Rewiring America founder Saul Griffith; cleantech board fixture Bruce Sohn; Veery Maxwell, a partner at Galvanize Climate Solutions; and Ben Kortlang, general partner at VC firm G2VP.

Former CEO Davis and other current and past Sunfolding executives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The global solar industry is installing more than 1 gigawatt of solar every day, 365 days a year, and it is still growing at full throttle because it provides the lowest-cost source of power, renewable or not.

It’s a large and expanding market worthy of VC investment, but there are steep barriers to introducing radically new hardware into a commodity electron business. These hurdles are not necessarily technical, but the path to market is riddled with hypercautious and risk-averse developers, financiers, insurers and accountants.

And of course, solar startups are bound by the same difficult truth that every fresh-faced market entrant has to grapple with: The vast majority of venture-funded companies eventually flounder or fail.

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.