There are few words more powerful in the English language than “what if”. BioLite, a New York City company started by innovators Jonathan Cedar and Alec Drummond, is a powerful example of “what if” in action.
The two inventors met in New York City and found they share a love for sustainable design. Turning their attention to the limitations of camping stoves on the market, they thought, “What if we could design a camping stove that was not dependent on petroleum fuels or batteries to work? What if we could make a wood-burning stove that could utilize its own thermal energy efficiently?”
They thought it, and then they did it. On their own time after work and on weekends, the duo designed a stove that contains its own thermoelectric generator, which converts waste heat from the fire into usable electricity. The electrical energy thenpowers an internal battery and a fan. All these components together increase the stove’s combustion and create a cleaner, almost smokeless fire.
Does it work? The BioLite Camp Stove can boil a liter of water in four and a half minutes and generates two watts of electricity to power lights and smart phones through a USB port. People in over 70 countries are using the stove with renewable biomass fuels like wood and brush to replace harder-to-acquire and harder-on-the-environment fossil fuels.
Originally, the concept behind the camp stove was a simple. Cedar and Drummond were focused on making the life of the recreational camper easier and more environmentally friendly. Happy with their initial results, they took their prototype to the ETHOS combustion conference in Seattle. There, two things happened which would change the focus of their company forever.
First, their prototype took the top prize as the cleanest stove of the year, which afforded them some seed money for future endeavors.
More importantly, however, they discovered something that showed them a more worthy goal. Noting that most of the other entries at the conference were focused on developing clean burning stoves for the developing world, Cedar and Drummond began to realize the true potential of their invention.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 3 billion people worldwide cook and heat their homes using either open flames or stoves that burn wood, coal, or animal and crop waste. Why is this a problem?
WHO estimates 4 million premature deaths occur each year due to exposure to smoky household emissions in developing lands. Releasing nearly 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, this method of heating and cooking exposes millions of people to diseases such as pneumonia, stroke, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.
Once the inventors discovered the true magnitude of the problem, they found that they could not sit idly by and do nothing to address the issue. So, they quit their previous jobs and devoted themselves full-time to developing the BioLite home stove, a device mainly designed for use in developing countries.
The problem with manufacturing a product that would be targeted to developing lands is there is no guarantee of monetary profit in it. Providing the BioLite stove to economically disadvantaged populations would, of necessity, be a prohibitively costly venture.
So, once again using their innovative approach to problem-solving, BioLite’s management team decided to move in a non-traditional direction. They chose to partially re-focus on the recreational camper market to gain the confidence and support of investors.
Then, using the profit from their recreational camping products, they could fund the development of products for emerging markets. Once this fell into place, the BioLite team turned its attention to promoting the use of their products in developing lands.
Understanding the reluctance of people to accept foreign ideas without question, the BioLite team worked to build partnerships with local energy companies in emerging markets to help them educate the population and distribute their products where they are most needed.
Using local sales people, BioLite shows citizens of developing countries how the BioLite Home Stove will impact their lives for the better. BioLite estimates that using their product can save the average household in developing lands from $8 to $10 per week. This is a huge sum to economically strapped people, and represents a considerable monetary advantage. Add to that the health benefits of a clean burning stove, and it is easy to see that this is a perfect mating of ingenuity and practicality.
BioLite’s story well illustrates that there is much power in the imagination and ingenuity of the human spirit. Harnessing the potential of this power can have major impact on our world and the way we experience it.