This past Sunday I had the privilege to meet fellow solar energy enthusiasts Catlin Powers, Co-Founder of One Earth Designs, and Colonel Varma, a retired Indian Army veteran for Sunday brunch. This was no ordinary meal however. Everything we ate was cooked out in the open sun on One Earth Designs’ Solar Cook Stove the SolSource.
Solar cook stoves have been around for a number of years now and are aiming to solve a critical issue both in environmental & human health. There are around 3 billion people worldwide that rely on pollutant solid fuel sources such as coal, wood or cow dung and use these fuel sources in an open fire within their homes for both cooking and heating needs. Needless to say daily inhalation of the smoke emitted by these indoor fires is a huge health concern, ranked by the WHO as one of the worst health risks facing the poor, and needlessly killing almost 2 million people a year, more than malaria and almost as many as AIDS worldwide. Collection of firewood is also huge time & energy burden in many low income areas requiring the need to carry the close to 50lbs of fuel wood as much as 10km one way each week. Furthermore the felling of trees for fuel wood results in ongoing deforestation and as forest areas are depleted, families must travel even longer distances to collect fuel resources.
Solar cook stoves provide a healthy alternative to the polluting fuel sources currently used for cooking in addition to saving families time & energy and helping to protect the world’s remaining forest areas. Furthermore the solar energy used to power the stove is free and renewable so the cook stove becomes an economical alternative to weekly purchases of more expensive coal in many rural areas.
There is certainly an obvious need for these products, but markets sometimes function in strange ways and need doesn’t always translate into demand. One of the most difficult things to do in the world is to change existing behaviors. Stories abound of markets being flooded with cheap and even free solar cook stoves only for the stoves to be left unused and even found being used as door stops. Just as in any start-up when designing a solar cook stove it is important to design a product to suit the particular needs and desires of your target customers. Simply designing a cook stove that appeals to donor or investor groups without validating the product in your target market will not necessarily produce a quality product that is sought after by your customer base.
Catlin Powers, Co-Founder of One Earth Designs, understood this from the beginning. After growing up in 4 different continents, living a bit of a nomadic life herself, Catlin went on to attend Wellesley College where she left after her sophomore year in order to go live and study for 2 years with the nomads on the Himalayan Plateau of western China. She originally went to study the effects that the pollution emitted from the new coal-fired power plants was having on the Himalayan climate, but after spending time living with the nomadic families she quickly realized that the more pressing issue with pollution was the one going on within the homes of these families. This understanding led her on a journey through a PhD at Harvard University on Environmental Health to the founding of One Earth Designs and the design of the SolSource solar cook stove with the specific needs and desires of the inhabitants of western china in mind. After numerous test models and validation trials with various customers they came to the current design which includes various user friendly attributes such as a dial to control temperature, a surface that is scratch resistant, not hot to the touch, and a system durable enough to withstand the high wind speeds of the Himalayan Plateau, but lightweight and compact enough to fit into a trekking backpack which can be carried around if needed. The product has won numerous awards including the 2009 MIT IDEAS Global Challenge & 2011 Unreasonable Institute fellowship.
Venture capitalists often use the idea of “betting on the jockey not the horse” when choosing potential investments. This is basically the idea of investing in a person or a team rather than a specific product or service idea as in the world of start-ups business models & concepts can change quite fast. Catlin Powers is the kind of intelligent, passionate, and ambitious individual willing to travel around the world spreading her message that is a great example of a “jockey” that I would be willing to bet my money on. In a world full of solar cook stove alternatives this is an essential aspect of a successful start-up social enterprise.