May 11, 2011
How many people does it take to replace a 19th-century kerosene lantern with a 21st-century solar lamp?
Cosmos Ignite Innovations proves it takes two.
One of the partners, Matthew Scott, led the design and development of a solar-powered lamp when he was a student at the Stanford Business School in 2003. The lamp is based on light-emitting diode (LED) technology, which uses much less electricity than incandescent bulbs or fluorescent tubes.
Scott initially intended for the lamps to be used in commercial buildings or aircraft. Then he read The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid and shifted his approach. The book by C.K. Prahalad describes the commercial opportunities offered by the 2.5 billion people in the world who live on less than $2.50 per day. Scott wanted to reach some of them with his lamp.
That’s when another partner, his old Stanford friend Amit Chugh, came into the picture. Scott asked Chugh, who had business-management experience, to help him redesign the lamp for the poor in Chugh’s home country, India, where millions of people rely on hazardous, polluting kerosene lanterns for light. Scott and Chugh formed a joint venture, Cosmos Ignite Innovations, with offices in the Silicon Valley in California and New Delhi. Scott secured financial backing from a veteran venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, and Chugh went to local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in India to test the lamp.
“It was a bridge between a high-tech hub and market of millions of poor craving a better life,” Chugh said.
The lamp, named MightyLight, is a multifunctional, water-proof, shock-proof, solar LED lamp capable of holding an eight-hour charge and designed to last 100,000 hours. Cosmos Ignite started selling it in India at $50 a unit in 2006.
Chugh said he and Scott were driven by the desire to “give back to the society and feel good about it in the process.” They sold MightyLights through NGOs, international agencies, the Indian government and commercial distributors. They chose not to follow the traditional path of aid and development groups that depend on charities and private foundations for financial resources, which sometimes dry out, leaving technology providers in limbo. “What we wanted instead was a commercial enterprise that would make our venture sustainable over time,” he said.
Chugh established design and assembly operations in Gurgaon, India, and has worked with Scott to make their lamp more affordable because many Indian poor couldn’t afford it at the original price. Now an improved, brighter model sells for $25.
So far Cosmos Ignite has sold 150,000 MightyLights in 18 countries. The company has expanded the product line to seven items, which include solar home lighting and street lights.
“The idea is to increase social impact rather than profits,” Chugh said.
“But from the outset you have to realize that you’re not going to be a millionaire.”
When fishermen and weavers started using MightyLights to extend their work hours, Chugh knew he and Scott were on the right track. “And when you know that, every challenge is exciting,” he said.