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The Brothers Morgan moment in the sun




When Morgan Solar moved into a new office and factory space in the eastern edge of Liberty Village in September 2009, they had more ideas than white boards. So they did what any start-up on the go would do: scribbled their production workflow plans onto the outside of a glass divider wall, just steps from the lobby entrance. It's a ready reminder of their purpose to manufacture cheap and environmentally friendly solar panels for energy farms around the world.

The renewable energy sector is big news these days. Though solar energy may still seem more like wishful thinking than good business (Germany's decision to introduce the staggered Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) rate was an incentive model for Ontario's Green Energy Act), the race to become a leader in the renewable energy market is great.  Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty only recently announced a controversial $7-billion partnership with the Samsung Group and Korea Electric Power Corp, who promised to build four new manufacturing plants to service the wind turbine and solar energy industries.

Yet what might be seen as a threat to a fledgling enterprise without a market-ready product is a critical opportunity and investment in the renewable sector, according to Nicholas Morgan, Vice President of Business Development and Marketing.  "Looking at other markets where solar really starts to boom, such as Germany, Spain and California," he says, "the presence of a major player tends to expand the market, benefiting everyone."  From their point of view, the Samsung deal has validated an entire industry.

If Nicholas sounds optimistic, it's because the family-run business sees itself as a game-changer.  Founded only in 2007 by younger brother John Paul with seed money from a particularly close angel investor, former CEO of Capgemini Ernst & Young Canada, Eric Morgan (also their father), Morgan Solar has already received additional investment support from both the federal and provincial governments. Clean Tech guru Tom Rand is a fan while Spanish renewable energy giant, Iberdrola Group SA and global plastics and injection moulding manufacturer, Nypro Inc. are committed partners. 

The impetus behind Morgan Solar's break-through technology is mostly due to its unique source of inspiration: the Democratic Republic of Congo. John Paul was working in the civil war-torn country with the humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières where he gradually recognized how difficult life was for a population without electricity.  Village women, for example, spent hours of each day fetching water and grinding grains by hand. 

"I realized that access to electricity should be a fundamental human right," says John Paul, who is Morgan Solar's Chief Technology Officer. "It was unacceptable that people there were without. It was undemocratic and unjust."

What began as a social justice concern soon became an intellectual compulsion. How do you provide gigawatts of energy cheaply?  Solar was one part of the answer, but it was notoriously an expensive proposition. So the University of Toronto engineering grad did what he was trained to do: work the problem.  Or more accurately, determine the questions that needed to be answered before starting a design, such as what existing materials and processes would simplify manufacturing and keep costs low? 

The solution was a complete redesign of conventional solar panels. Instead of relying on finicky mirrors, prisms or lenses to capture the sun's energy via photovoltaic cells, typical to the industry, John Paul, who had previously worked for optical technology leader JDS Uniphase, created what Morgan Solar calls Light-guide Solar Optics, a proprietary technology simple in look and scalability.  By removing extraneous parts, the panels were made to be more compact and less susceptible to breakdown in the field.  The design is considered so innovative that the company was able to persuade the Ontario government to consider broadening its upcoming/work-in-progress Can-Con regulations for the kinds of solar panels eligible under the FIT program.

Walk through the mostly empty 8,000 sq foot warehouse attached to their office and the importance of R & D becomes apparent. Although the company had initially estimated that their products would have been available by the end of 2009, the main product is still very much in its prototype phase.  It takes a day to manually prepare each panel so they can be tested, tweaked and redesigned.  They look more like a clicked-together set of over-sized CD cases rather than the large square mirrors as traditionally seen atop buildings.  As small-scale as it seems, the work here is critical to confirming whether the brilliant ideas of a blueprint can actually become an inexpensive manufacturing process.

2010 is an important year for Morgan Solar – preparing for field testing, developing a pipeline of components for their solar panels, finalizing what they will manufacture themselves, and even hiring a CEO without a familiar last name. Although the company plans to build the Light-guide Solar Optics they patented by using Toronto's already existing but underutilized manufacturing capacity, most other parts will be outsourced to large industry players like JDS Uniphase who already produce solar panel materials inexpensively and in high volumes.  

"If every new tech company had to re-invent manufacturing, we'd still be in the horse and buggy stage," says Nicholas. It's part of Morgan Solar's common-sense approach to business and innovation. Simple and straightforward, just like the workflow chart that is still up for every employee to walk past as they start their day.

Piali Roy is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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