Getting started in Wales

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Hertzberg promptly flew to Cardiff and made the Welsh government an offer it couldn't refuse. If Wales could provide the necessary papers within three weeks, he would move into the abandoned Acer factory. A sympathetic official from International Business Wales, a government agency chartered to attract foreign investment, helped Hertzberg and his lawyers draw up the contracts in one long day.

Hertzberg requested no other incentives. "We just wanted to be left alone," he recalls.

Instead of promising a job boom for the locals, Hertzberg merely stressed that G24i's presence would put Cardiff on Europe's green-energy map. G24i also committed to building a green education center for kids.

"He's a very impressive chap," says Helen Williams, an officer with a government group called Invest Wales, who attended Hertzberg's lecture. "He wants results, and because he's so up front about it rather than being wishy-washy, people are willing to help."

Hertzberg refined his pitch to lure hires from as far afield as Spain and Taiwan. Where better than Wales, he asked them, to prove that solar cells can produce energy in low light? Last fall the company persuaded John Hartnett, formerly vice president of global markets at Palm (PALM), to move from Silicon Valley and serve as G24i's CEO. "It feels like joining Intel in 1973," Hartnett says. "The personalization of solar technology is where the industry is going."

Solar cells on sheets of extremely thin, flexible film are not new. U.S. firms such as Powerfilm and Nanosolar already make them. Thin film accounts for 10% of the global solar market now, and that share will rise to 20% by 2010, according to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association. For an undisclosed sum, Hertzberg licensed exclusive rights to a new technology developed by Swiss scientist Michael Graetzel. His thin film was impregnated with an especially light-sensitive dye.

"G24i is the first company to try dye-sensitized cells on a large scale," says Andreas Bett of Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems.

Soaking up energy

Of the light that hits a typical thin-film cell, about 8% is converted into electricity. Silicon cells capture approximately 15% of their light. Graetzel's dye-based technology captures just 3% - but does so at any light level, unlike its rivals. Better yet, G24i's cells require so little energy to make that the company plans to power its entire factory with a 2-megawatt wind turbine. "It's renewable energy making renewable energy," crows Hertzberg.

The company won't estimate its first-year revenue, but Hertzberg eagerly touts its first products: thin-film batteries that can charge gadgets on the go, and a solar-powered LED light.

The products sound like no-brainers, but aiming them at the developing world is risky. G24i has contracts with local phone companies in India, Kenya and Nigeria to distribute cell-phone chargers, and last year the company won a $200,000 prize from the World Bank to distribute the LED light in sub-Saharan Africa. (Hertzberg claims that prizes are not the same as subsidies.) The light will launch in Rwanda late this year.

G24i's charger will sell for $35, which analysts think may be too pricey for the developing world. Sure, cell phones are increasingly widespread in areas where the electric grid can be a day's walk away. But "people in these remote areas are unbelievably frugal in their use of appliances," says Nigel Scott, who writes about cell phones and development for the British think tank Gamos. For example, entrepreneurs in many African markets sell phone charges using their car batteries.

Hertzberg is unconcerned - indeed, he expects those entrepreneurs to be his best customers. They charge around 50 cents a pop, so his device could pay for itself in one day. And he argues that the rise of micro-finance in the developing world makes his product affordable to anyone. "Analysts aren't seeing the bigger picture," Hertzberg insists. In short, Hertzberg aims to make a profit by creating a global solar ecosystem.

With that in mind, he ends his pitch to the Welsh civil servants by urging them to ditch subsidies and focus on nurturing green startups with a range of tax incentives. "The big companies aren't coming," he says. "But you can help the little folks come in and make heroes out of them."  To top of page

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