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Asif Ansari, John Paul Morgan, and Nicolas Morgan of Toronto-based Morgan Solar. (Andrew B. Myers/Andrew B. Myers)
Asif Ansari, John Paul Morgan, and Nicolas Morgan of Toronto-based Morgan Solar. (Andrew B. Myers/Andrew B. Myers)

Innovation

Solar legend guides startup across Valley of Death Add to ...

Late last December, Asif Ansari looked at the rain falling outside his Southern California mansion and his heart lifted a bit. It was that unnerving kind of Pacific deluge that liquefies hillsides and makes kindling of dream homes. Newscasts flashed clips of daring car-top rescues and highways submerged in muddy brine. But all was well in Ansari's world. With every climatic calamity, his impending move to Toronto made a little more sense. "The snow doesn't look too bad right now," he said.

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But from every other angle, the cross-border relocation of one of the world's foremost sun-power executives seems puzzling. Ansari is a solar guy - a solar legend, even - the mastermind behind a dozen start-ups (four of them in solar energy) and, most famously, one of the guys who persuaded Google to make a well-publicized investment in solar panels. (The search giant put $10 million U.S. into Ansari's company, eSolar Inc., and has since invested tens of millions more in other solar technologies.) In North America, the place to reign as a solar guru is California. It has the sun, the rivers of venture capital and the rickety power grid.

Ontario has none of these - at least not on a golden California scale. What it does have is green legislation that singlehandedly put the province on the map of worldwide renewable-energy hotspots, a city Ansari loves, and a tiny start-up, based in a once-abandoned warehouse, whose solar panel designs Ansari thinks could revolutionize the industry he helped pioneer. This is a relationship forged in brain cells and ambition - a small Ontario company desperate for someone to shepherd it across the so-called Valley of Death from grand idea to mass production, and an industry sage scouring for the Next Big Thing. Ansari is abandoning his dream home, leaving a promising company, eSolar (which designs and develops solar thermal power plants), and uprooting his wife and three kids - all for an opportunity to pilot Morgan Solar toward the entrepreneurial promised land: a proven product, international customers, a 10-figure market cap.

"It was an awkward decision, one I never anticipated making, but I could see Morgan Solar was at a critical juncture," he says. "They were incredible on the science end of things, but science alone doesn't get you across the Valley of Death, especially in solar."

By 2013, solar energy is expected to be a $100-billion (U.S.) industry. Already it has created 100,000 jobs in North America and fuelled expectations of 42% annual growth in the U.S. into the next decade. The trend has been more pronounced across the globe, with worldwide solar energy production increasing 3,750% between 2000 and 2009.

But Morgan Solar faces a rapidly shifting investment climate. Over the past two years, the poor economy has tempered investor enthusiasm for a sector that still relies on government subsidies and tax credits for growth. In Spain and Germany - the world's solar leaders - government spending cuts have trimmed support for the industry and unnerved investors.

Ansari is undaunted. The company that convinced him to give up California lies on a worn-out triangle of land at a "Y" formed by diverging downtown train tracks. Directly across one set of tracks is a reeking pig slaughterhouse. The old warehouse was surrounded by weeds when Morgan Solar took it over, and it's eventually slated to be demolished and replaced with condos. Depending on the day, about 32 people work here. Ansari's new office is chilly and dark, and it neighbours the office belonging to company founder and resident wunderkind John Paul Morgan.

Today, the company founded by 32-year-old Morgan sits on the cusp of a major solar power breakthrough. The walls of his office are covered in whiteboards scrawled with incomprehensible mathematical equations. Having formally hired Ansari as CEO in October (he was advising the company for months before that), he doesn't worry as much about being the company's poster boy. His laissez-faire façade includes several days' worth of stubble, bed-head and an untucked powder-blue button-up.

By 2006, at age 27, he'd already led several storied lives. After graduating from an optics program at the University of Toronto, he quickly rose through the ranks at JDS Uniphase. Deciding he needed a little more purpose, he enrolled in grad school in 2003, specializing in medical imaging, a field that introduced him to inverse theory - a kind of backwards problem-solving that involves formulating mathematical explanations from observed phenomena. He lapped it up and used the medical experience to land a logistics position with Doctors Without Borders in eastern Congo. Managing one hospital, 10 clinics and a number of construction projects, he realized that his many talents extended to management. "I learned that I love to manage," says Morgan.

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