Soltech, a spin-off from imec and a pioneer in the field of tailor-made building-integrated solar panels (BIPV modules), is making a new start thanks to a consortium of six industrial and financial partners (Bas van de Kreeke, AGC Glass Europe, Hegge BV, LRM, Nuhma and RSQ Investors). Soltech succumbed in March 2021 because there was not enough money to innovate and automate. With serial entrepreneur Bas van de Kreeke as CEO, the promising company will have a new start. In its new format, Soltech will produce custom-made solar panels that can be used not only in roof tiles, awnings, window glass or noise barriers, but also in solar modules in vehicles. A few weeks ago, production was restarted from the current production site in Tienen. At the end of 2022, however, a new production facility will be commissioned at Thor Park in Genk, which will allow the existing R&D collaboration with the world-renowned EnergyVille and imec to be further expanded.
Soltech NV is a Belgian company with production facilities located in Tienen. Soltech was founded in 1989 as a spin-off from imec and was a pioneer in the field of solar panels or photovoltaics (PV). Since the beginning, the company was also known due to the founding of its sister company Photovoltech, a solar cell manufacturer that at its peak had nearly 300 employees, but, like other European manufacturers, succumbed to Chinese competition in 2013.
Soltech itself remained intact and invested heavily in innovation in order to be able to produce custom solar panels and panels with greater added value. The company developed solar panels that can be used in construction applications – such as roof tiles, canopies, window glass or sound barriers – but also have their application in vehicle-integrated modules (VIPV).
The production of solar panels is still largely done manually, which has led to the need to carry out a restart. An important investment round, to implement new machines and further automation, was desperately needed. Due to the fact that the required capital could not be found in time, the company with its attractive order book and impressive know-how had to put the books down in March 2021.
Investment of 1.9 million euros
The promising technology around building-integrated solar panels, the highly specialized team and the intensive collaboration with renowned knowledge institutions such as Energyville, imec, IMMOMEC and UHasselt, were able to convince a group of industrial and financial investors to restart Soltech.
In addition to serial entrepreneur Bas van de Kreeke, best known as CEO of the construction company van de Kreeke, glass producer AGC, metal worker, facade builder and producer of aluminum mudguards Hegge, the Limburg investment company LRM, the Limburg environmental holding Nuhma and investor group RSQ Investors (part of the Quanteus Group) in the capital. The partners jointly put 1.9 million euros on the table to allow the company to restart.
Ir. Bas van de Kreeke becomes CEO of Soltech. He firmly believes in the future of the company: “The market for solar panels or photovoltaic cells is still growing strongly. Innovation in materials and processes remains necessary for higher and stable returns, new applications and production at lower costs. Traditional solar panels are mainly produced in China and sold at prices that can no longer be produced in Europe. This part of the market is therefore no longer included in Soltech’s revised strategy. The building-integrated solar panels require a lot of know-how and flexible and fast customized production. This can be produced locally in Belgium at a good margin.”
Soltech mainly develops and produces solar panels for the construction sector, which is strongly driven by need for new sustainable and circular solutions and innovations.
Bas van de Kreeke: “The adoption of integrated custom modules that are, for example, incorporated into building components of a building is still going slowly. This is partly because the construction world is conservative, because architects and builders prefer traditional facades and roofs. The aesthetic aspect of the solar cells has long been an issue, but today panels can be made to your liking with an attractive aesthetic design. The combination of renewable energy generation and various architectural functional elements will increase in importance for the living environment of the future. Within the foreseeable future, all buildings must meet the strict European energy performance standards. High-rise buildings (e.g. ‘skyscrapers’) often have too small a roof to provide sufficient renewable energy, so work must also be done via the facades.
Factory of the future
The investors invest to allow Soltech to restart. Initially, the company will serve existing customers from its production facilities in Tienen and will invest in innovation and product development. However, there is also a construction plan on the drawing board for a completely new production facility at Thor Park in Genk, a high-tech business campus being developed by LRM, the City of Genk and KU Leuven. The start-up at Thor Park is planned for the end of 2022.
Quotes from the partners
- Mr. Tom Vanham, CEO LRM: “Soltech can build on technology and years of developments and has a team of highly specialized employees. The collaboration with imec and research institute Energyville, together with industrial partners for the processing of solar cells in building materials, make this project a very interesting case. The fact that there are plans to build a production facility at Thor Park makes it very worthwhile to invest in this project. We are bringing smart manufacturing industry to Limburg again.”
- Mr. Ludo Kelchtermans, CEO NUHMA: “The seamless integration of photovoltaics in buildings and products, as a complementary energy source, is an obvious step that the solar energy sector must now take on a massive scale. Buildings will be sustainable and provide their own energy. Nuhma’s co-investment supports this evolution and brings together the expertise of Soltech, Imec and Energyville, resulting in additional high-quality employment at the Thor park.”
- Marc Hegge, Managing Director of Hegge NV: “Investing in the relaunch of Soltech fits within our strategic plan to make the facades that we design, produce and install energy neutral through BIPV. The know-how available at Soltech and the collaboration with imec and Energyville, among others, is an absolute added value for the further development of BIPV. On the other hand, we are proud that we can put our shoulders to the wheel in a project that brings smart manufacturing industry to our province and region.”
- Kris Vansanten, Managing Partner of RSQ Investors and also Chairman of the Board of Directors of the new Soltech: “Soltech is an investment that fully fits our vision of corporate social responsibility. Not only will Soltech make a substantial contribution to achieving the European climate goals, we also see it as a company where local entrepreneurship and competences can be re-developed. In this way we can also contribute to the deglobalization trend that is gaining momentum.”
- Patrick Van Bortel, Vice President Industrial & New Businesses, AGC Glass Europe: “As a European leader in flat glass with headquarters in Belgium, we are fully committed to this initiative. The BIPV market is in full development and AGC Glass Europe wants to play a leading role in making the construction sector more sustainable in line with the EU Green Deal.”