When President Barack Obama visited Solyndra Inc. in May 2010, then-CEO Chris Gronet gave him a personal tour in what was the high point of the young startup's meteoric rise.
But behind the scenes, Solyndra was mired in trouble. Gronet, a veteran Silicon Valley technologist who founded the company, had quietly been stripped of many of his executive duties, and Solyndra's board of directors was searching for his replacement.
Little more than a year after Obama's visit, Solyndra filed for bankruptcy, throwing more than 1,000 employees out of work and igniting a fierce debate about the role of government in supporting clean-energy companies.
Two Solyndra executives were called to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee -- both invoked their Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate themselves -- but Gronet so far has escaped the spotlight. But documents released by congressional investigators and interviews with former Solyndra employees indicate that he, more than any other individual, is responsible for the company's sudden rise and spectacular fall.
Gronet founded Solyndra in 2005 and personally pushed for its $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, which was used to build a new 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility along Interstate 880. He fired off demanding emails to Energy Department staff members when his company's application hit snags or delays. He attended a White House meeting hosted by Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, pressed for Chu to visit Solyndra and even suggested talking points for him.
But as Solyndra was racing to build its new factory, demand for its cylindrical solar panels was softening amid fierce competition and a global recession.
Former Solyndra employees say Gronet -- often described as driven and aggressively ambitious -- poured his heart, soul and professional reputation into the company but fell dangerously in love with a solar technology that was expensive to make and had limited commercial appeal.
"Chris is basically a decent guy, but he's like many high achievers in Silicon Valley," said one former employee who worked closely with Gronet and spoke on condition that he not be identified. "There was irrational exuberance about the cylindrical design. One of the most dangerous things business people can do is fall in love with their product. There was a lot of delusional thinking that this product was better than everybody else's."
Gronet, who lives in the town of Portola Valley, Calif., and has kept a low profile since Solyndra's collapse, did not respond to several interview requests. His attorney, Miles Ehrlich, declined to comment for this report because of the ongoing investigations into Solyndra's loan guarantee by House Republicans, who are searching for signs of political favoritism, and the Justice Department, for possible accounting fraud. Gronet apparently is working on a new venture in clean tech.
Gronet has not been charged with any crime, and he has not been asked to testify before Congress. But emails released as part of the congressional investigation show the intense and hands-on role he played in pushing for Solyndra's loan guarantee under two administrations.
Solyndra first applied for an Energy Department loan guarantee in late 2006. A loan guarantee is not a direct loan, but a contractual obligation that the federal government will cover the borrower's debt in the case of default. When the application was delayed as Energy Department staff members sought additional information about the fast-changing solar market, Gronet was stunned and upset.
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