Willard MacDonald was a young engineer at Santa Rosa's Agilent Technologies when the bottom dropped out of the telecommunications market.

He didn't wait to be laid off, but he took a voluntary severance package last year.

Now, he's pursuing a dream - starting a business that makes high-tech products for the solar industry.

"I wanted to apply my engineering skills in a way that would be more important to the world," said MacDonald, 35.

He convinced another ex-Agilent engineer, Mark Galli, to join the effort. They built their first invention, the SunEye, in the garage of Galli's Windsor home.

The SunEye is a hand-held digital gadget that measures solar energy with the touch of a button. Builders, architects, solar contractors and landscape designers can use it to measure a location's year-round solar energy potential.

Their company, Solmetric, will introduce the $1,255 device this weekend at Mendocino County's SolFest, the Woodstock of alternative-energy events.

Solmetric is just one of the startups spawned by engineers who once worked for high-profile Telecom Valley companies.

Another startup, Petaluma's Threshold Corp., has just released a home networking device that connects TVs, computers, security systems and other household electronics.

For MacDonald, solar power was a natural direction for his engineering talents.

"I've been interested in alternative energy for years," he said. "This was a way to move my career in that direction."

He worked nine years for Hewlett-Packard and its Agilent spinoff, developing optical test equipment and high-

bandwidth oscilloscopes.

Galli, also 35, is a software expert who spent seven years at HP and Agilent, then worked for Keithley Instruments in Santa Rosa.

The startup raised $140,000, mostly from friends and family members, to develop the product.

The SunEye has a compass, leveling device, built-in camera and on-board computer for measuring solar energy.

The camera's fish-eye lens captures the site's exposure, including trees and buildings that can block the sun. The device then calculates solar energy potential using a software program that plots the sun's daily path at different locations.

Data are shown on a touch screen and can be sent to a PC or laptop. The SunEye is faster and more accurate than existing tools, MacDonald said.

The solar industry is poised for growth as energy costs soar, but solar measurement still is a niche market, he said. Solmetric hopes to become profitable in a year, MacDonald said.

MacDonald and Galli are the company's only full-time employees, but they have part-time help for marketing, sales and special engineering tasks.

The SunEye is currently available on the company's Web site, www.solmetric.com., but the partners now are looking for distributors.