BioLite Shares the Case for Parallel Innovation
Sometimes, all it takes is a spark to launch a potentially world-changing idea. Long eclipsed by coal, oil and renewables, wood is no longer regarded or used as a primary source of energy in the post-industrial world. Yet wood is still widely used for cooking in the developing world. According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, nearly half of the world still cooks on open wood-burning fires, and improper ventilation in cooking areas leads to over four million deaths per year.
BioLite founders Jonathan Cedar and Alec Drummond shared two passions: to help solve this problem through sustainable design — and camping. As longtime colleagues at New York-based design consultancy Smart Design, they began investigating thermoelectric technology as a side project to explore alternatives to traditional wood fires, both for themselves and those living in developing countries. But it was only when they won a “camping gizmo” competition at a conference on wood-burning stoves, in 2008, that they realized the true potential of the technology: for off-the-grid use cases.
They spun off in 2009 to bring their work to the market in the form of the BioLite CampStove. The portable wood-burning stove quickly garnered recognition (including a Core77 Design Award) not just for its clever design—it harnesses the excess heat from the combustion chamber to power a ventilation fan and generator—but also for its broader cause: to reduce toxic emissions and save lives on a global scale.
To that end, the HomeStove—a more robust version of the CampStove—is designed expressly for daily use in remote locales; both products capture enough excess heat to charge devices via USB port. It’s an easy metaphor for how BioLite’s tech-driven approach dovetails with its pragmatic benefits. Biolite’s hybrid business model uses sales to a recreational audience, who can afford the luxury of camping gear, to subsidize their efforts in emerging markets.
Within five years, the Brooklyn-based company has delivered its first shipment of 10,000 HomeStoves to users in Ghana, India and Uganda. In the meantime, the team has grown to 38-employees strong, forging ahead on both fronts—product design and the greater mission—with a research-led process in which stakeholders’ feedback is as important as technology and engineering. By revisiting mankind’s very first source of energy, BioLite has an impact far beyond that of a consumer product: the company is not only looking to innovate, but also to put their innovation in the hands of those who need them most.
Even as its existing products make their way to the masses, BioLite continues to develop new ones. Introduced earlier this year, the NanoGrid is a new portable lighting and power solution that comprises the PowerLight—a 3-in-1 flashlight, lantern and rechargeable battery that holds three phone charges’ worth of power—and the smaller, chainable SiteLight lamps.
Here, Director of Industrial Design Anton Ljunggren and Director of Marketing Erica Rosen share insights on building a lean startup, the BioLite parallel innovation strategy, and designing products with true social impact.
Core77: Can you start with some learnings from the first six years of BioLite—both the unexpected success stories and things you might have done differently?
Anton Ljunggren: The successful reception of the CampStove at its launch in 2012 took us all by surprise. We knew there was great interest but it is very rare for any startup to be profitable right out the gate the way BioLite was.
We knew that it is challenging to build hardware. Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s equally important—and sometimes equally complex—to build the right team. We’ve approached the building of the team as a design exercise carefully adding great talent to a lean and focused team. Through this strategy we’ve been able to create the same value as companies two or three times our size.
Can you expand on how you’ve built a lean and focused team?
Erica Rosen: Lean and focused means we are constantly evaluating if our resources are being used effectively. We strive to have clear and tight workflows and communication so as to prevent burning through unnecessary revisions, meetings, etc.
Lean and focused also greatly impacts the type of talent we look for: we want problem-solvers. We want people who think through problems in a strategic way and can see more than the immediate step in front of them. This often goes hand-in-hand with a positive “I’ll get it done” attitude. Each team member can end up wearing a lot of hats but we feel it makes the whole process stronger and we end up with great interdisciplinary input in approaching projects and problems.
AL: Serving two distinct markets with their own unique needs definitely adds complexity to the business. But this is far outweighed by the value it brings. As a team, BioLite has a unique sense of pride in the work we do for both markets but in the emerging markets in particular. It’s a great feeling to see your work being enjoyed by happy campers but it’s even more powerful to see the profound positive impact of the HomeStove and the NanoGrid in the lives of our users in the emerging markets. This sense of mission brings the team together and keeps us all trying harder every day.
ER: Our product development team does work on both sides of the business. However, our Emerging Markets side has its own sales and operations team. It adds complexity to the business because a lot of the infrastructure we build or nurture in one market doesn’t necessarily translate easily into the other. Emerging Markets is a challenging field because it’s just that, emerging: there is no REI or Amazon.com in rural India, so our sales channels are totally different, we have to build them from scratch.
Furthermore, by having such distinctly different audiences from a standard-of-living perspective, it creates complexity in the consideration set of the feature sets and pricepoints we can design for. But it’s a challenge that ultimately makes us smarter and pushes us to build a better product for everyone.
Can you briefly describe the notion of parallel innovation, and provide a specific instance or example about how it informs your design process?
AL: When we developed the NanoGrid, we researched the lighting needs of a hiker or group at a campsite simultaneously as we traveled to India to meet with farmers in the fields and families at their homes. We found similar needs such as the ability to share the energy in the lights to charge a phone or the value in having a directional lantern to be used as a task light for reading or chopping vegetables.
But we also observed unique needs such as compactness and pocketability for the hiker and the value of evenly diffused light that doesn’t create hard shadows in the tight quarters of a rural Indian family. The common needs fulfilled the baseline for what a good light should be while the unique drivers pushed us to include features that would have been deprioritized in a product for either one of the markets but had to be included in one for both. This drives innovation and ultimately produced a better product for both users.
ER: The company incubates core energy technologies and markets them in parallel to families living in energy poverty along with campers in outdoor markets. Profits generated by the outdoor market are re-invested into building sustainable and scalable energy solutions for the rural poor. A departure from the “buy one, give one” model, BioLite utilizes a market-based approach: it designs products that meet the critical needs of rural consumers at a price-point that they can afford, thus boosting local economies, improving public health, and curbing climate change.
AL: As another example, the SiteLights were born out of the insight that families in rural India and Africa need a lighting solution that can light more than one room. I was visiting a family that only had intermittent grid electricity. They lived in a two-room house but spent a lot of time outside, on the front patio. The family relied on lighting from the small LED flashlight on one of their cell phones, as well as one tube light. To make the most out of the tube light, the father of the household had the bright idea of cutting a hole in the wall and sticking the light halfway through, lighting both the living quarters and the patio. The NanoGrid system, with its daisy-chainable SiteLights, became our solution to the same problem. This was an innovation driven by the necessity of this and many other families in the emerging markets. Yet it’s a much-loved feature in the camping segment for the sense of space and room it gives to a campsite, a garden table or a deck.
How much time and energy do you spend on solving problems outside of the products themselves—i.e., scalability, distribution?
ER: We have an entire team dedicated to building scalable solutions in the emerging markets. While our product development team works on both sides of the business through our model of parallel innovation, we have a dedicated emerging markets team that works on finding partners, building distribution channels, conducting field research and creating pilot programs that can scale rapidly. They do everything from researching grants to training local sales teams in rural villages in India to solving for unexpected challenges like, “How do you strap a homestove to a motorcycle?”
Similarly, your products inherently lend themselves both to field-testing and feedback; what is the prototyping and beta-testing process like? In terms of new product development, how far ahead do you look?
AL: We do a company wide product pipeline exercise every spring a few months after that year’s products have hit the market and as feedback is starting to trickle in. Everyone in the company has a different lens on the products that we’ve produced and where our efforts should be focused next. By leveraging the unique expertise of each discipline we get a well-rounded result.
Outside of the design and social impact communities, where do you look for inspiration?
ER: We look to the outdoor industry and community for a lot of inspiration; there is a powerful network of brands in this area that master technical quality, authentic storytelling, and social responsibility—many of them doing so long before it became a mainstream standard. They live their missions and passions, and we are energized by that.
We also look to our customers for inspiration—seeing how they interact with our products as well as other everyday devices and gear, particularly in emerging markets. Having the voice of the real-world customer in our minds keeps us honest and maintains our user at the center of everything we do.
BioLite’s product collection, at the moment, comprises a variety of consumer-level energy solutions; can you elaborate on your long-term goals?
ER: Our long-term goal is to provide affordable off-grid energy access to communities that need it most. Cooking, lighting, and charging are three of the most pressing needs that energy-deprived families face and we believe we have both the technology and business model to build scalable solutions to reach millions of households in the years to come. We’re building compelling products at price points that consumers can afford while simultaneously developing the distribution and sales channels to reach even the poorest households; when we say we are committed to bringing energy everywhere, we mean it.
– Ray Hu for Core77
Image sources: BioLite