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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 ...

Rand latched onto the company, shopping the tiny firm to a number of investors and pitching in some cash himself. But even with potentially game-changing technology, there was one huge barrier between Morgan Solar and commercial success. In the years Morgan had been working on the CPV problem, the entire solar industry has shifted. Heavy investment in the sector has streamlined production methods and pulled down costs considerably, making it tougher to get noticed with an innovation promising to save a few more pennies. At the same time, debt-laden European governments have begun trimming renewable subsidies as a cost-cutting measure. While unsettling, those trends make Ontario all the more attractive for Morgan Solar. The province has held firm on its Green Energy Act, which brought in feed-in tariffs that pay renewable energy producers - be they farmers with windmills or conglomerates with vast solar farms - a premium to pour their energy into the grid. The generous incentive program has already attracted over $8 billion in domestic and international investment.

A lean competition was coming, and Morgan knew that if his company didn't start mass-producing soon, it risked being left behind. With startling self-awareness and humility, the Morgan brothers admitted they couldn't do it themselves. They had the brains for engineering and science, but the Valley of Death beckoned, and they needed a sure-handed shepherd.

"I'm good at certain things," says Morgan. "I can write a program, figure out costs, build things, and I can manage people. Some day I might learn to be a CEO. But I'm 32. This company could really change the way people make energy in the world. I don't want to put that goal at risk just because my ego wants to be the one who accomplished it."

The Morgans hired a headhunter who knew Asif Ansari. When he included Ansari's name on a list of potential candidates, Morgan balked. "Everyone knows he has a job already," he remembers saying. "He won't give us a look."

Little did the brothers know that Ansari had spent three agonizing years with the best optical scientists in the business trying to do exactly what Morgan achieved in one month. So convinced was Ansari that CPV panels couldn't be flattened that he flew to Toronto as soon as the headhunter told him what the company was up to. "I told them I wasn't in the market, I wasn't interested, but that I was willing to see what they were all about," Ansari recalls, chuckling at how quickly the interest consumed him. "When I saw it firsthand, I knew they were on to something, that this could be a real game-changer."

Not just a game-changer - a potential world-changer. Over the course of several visits, Ansari's life was transformed. His outlook on life and work shifted. Old assumptions died. He felt like Eric Schmidt after he happened upon a couple of boy geniuses named Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2001. Today, the three Google guys are worth a combined $35.5 billion (U.S.), according to Forbes. "They knew they were inventing this cool new stuff," says Ansari of the brainy Morgan staff. "But I'm not sure they'd thought through how utterly breathtaking the market implications of the technology were. I felt that I just could not walk away for the sake of the impact this technology could have on the world."

The holy grail of renewable energy is called grid parity, the point at which it becomes at least as cheap as conventional grid sources - coal, nuclear, hydro and all the rest. Current solar technologies run about 20 cents per kilowatt hour. Grid parity lies at around 10 cents. Ansari thinks Morgan Solar could promise that elusive milestone early next year, once the current round of testing and development is finished and limited commercial production begins. He's circling the globe spreading the message to his Rolodex of contacts.

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