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.

Have an idea for what the old Sonoma County National Bank Building should be next?

Email Nick Papadopoulos at nick@cropmobster.com.