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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 ...

At the end of a one-year contract, he left for Chile, his parents' country of birth, to work part-time at a university in Santiago. By day, he worked as a researcher; by night, he pondered the next move in the unrelenting ascendancy of his life. Doctors Without Borders urged him to take a management position in Sudan. As he prepared to go, his dad stepped in. Eric Morgan is a formidable figure, in business and family. With a resumé that includes six kids and stints as CEO of the Canadian and Iberian branches of Capgemini, an IT services and management consultancy with over 100,000 employees worldwide, he had a sobering challenge for his son. "He told me that going to Sudan then was the easiest thing I could possibly do because I couldn't possibly fail," Morgan recalls of the father-son chat. "He said I had more to offer the world and that I needed to find the hardest thing I could possibly do and go for that. Anything less would be selling myself short. It was a taunt, in a way."

The more he thought about it, the more Morgan got his dad's point. Maybe there was some other way of changing the world, something worth fertilizing in his own big brain. A decade earlier, as an optical engineering student, he'd become intrigued with solar energy, and a few years later started looking at perfecting a new kind of concentrated solar generation, using mirrors or lenses to focus the sun's radiation on a piece of film. It was a technology with a wealth of potential but a lack of recent innovation. With his optics background and a peculiar love of inverse problem-solving, he felt he could change that - and just maybe change the whole energy industry in the process.

And so the son listened, descending into a hermitic fit of genius befitting Iron Man's Tony Stark. First, he looked at flaws in existing technologies. The most common photovoltaic applications use large pieces of film or crystalline materials to convert solar radiation into electric current. But these products are pricey, and they have a theoretical efficiency rate - a measure of total surrounding sunlight they can absorb and convert to electricity - of only around 28%. Concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) cuts the cost and increases the efficiency. It uses a mirror or lens (Morgan Solar employs a thin piece of transparent plastic) to concentrate solar radiation on a small piece of film - the same principal employed when kids fry ants with a magnifying glass. The design shrinks the most expensive component and ups the theoretical efficiency rate to over 40%, but existing models are clunky, box-like configurations in which the lens is only about a foot from the film. They are prone to crosswinds, moisture - and huge production costs. The world's best optics engineers have said there was no way to flatten the design and, thus, the cost.

Morgan was about to prove them wrong. For one month, he worked at a laptop propped up on an old sewing table in his cramped apartment overlooking Cerro San Cristóbal, a massive hill in downtown Santiago. When he needed simulation software, he wrote it himself. When he hit a mathematical wall, he deployed inverse theory. Within a month, he'd solved what the optics guys couldn't - theoretically, at least. "I got lucky," says Morgan. "I asked a lot of the right questions."

By the summer of 2007, he'd applied for patents, moved back to Toronto, maxed out his credit cards and borrowed money from his dad for seed capital. Then he hired the smartest engineer he could find, Philip Chang (who studied mechanical engineering at U of T), and opened up shop in a small garage downtown. His brother Nicolas, who was a project manager at a Web start-up in Spain, came on board full-time in 2008.

Even with a bare-bones staff, the technology was turning heads. "A lot of solar start-ups are not bringing new intellectual property to the table," says Tom Rand, a serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and clean-energy adviser at MaRS, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that links promising tech companies with capital. "Immediately you could see Morgan Solar was not like that. They cracked the code on CPV. The net result is that they present a danger to the entire marketplace. That's what we like to see."

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