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How One Company Can Power Your Phone with a Pinecone

Kelsey Pommer, Manager, Digital Media, Consumer Technology Association (CTA)

Millions of people around the world do not have access to reliable electricity or safe methods of cooking. These people are forced to cook over open fires, damaging their health while also releasing toxic emissions into the environment. The BioLite team came up with a solution: a stove that uses thermoelectronics to generate a fire without smoke and that also generates electricity for charging electronics.
We had a chance to speak with them about how they created their business and what is next for Consumer Technology Association (CTA) member BioLite:
How did you first come up with the concept for BioLite?
Our founders, Alec and Jonathan, met at Smart Design in New York City where they quickly bonded over their interest in sustainable design. Alec, frustrated that almost all efficient camping stoves required fossil fuels, had the idea of a wood-burning stove able to utilize its own thermal energy to improve combustion. Jonathan, an avid camper, quickly brought his engineering background to the table and the two began the design process. Countless nights, weekends, and prototypes later, the BioLite CampStove was born: a portable biomass stove that leveraged thermoelectrics to create a smokeless fire all while charging personal devices.
In 2009 Jonathan and Alec took their working prototype to a combustion conference, where they discovered their technology could have an impact: half the planet lives in energy poverty, lacking safe and reliable ways to cook, charge and light their lives; 3 billion people cook over smoky open fires every day, leading to 4 million premature deaths annually.
It was with these shocking numbers that Jonathan and Alec decided to pursue development of The BioLite HomeStove, a large format biomass cookstove that cuts fuel consumption in half and reduces toxic emissions by 90 percent.
How does BioLite work?
BioLite’s flagship technology is a wood-burning cooking stove that generates electricity from the heat of its own fire. Featuring a patented thermoelectric design, we convert the waste heat from the fire into usable energy that powers a fan, blowing air back into the burn chamber which dramatically improves combustion. Compared to a typical open biomass cookfire, we reduce up to 90 percent of the toxic emissions and cut fuel consumption in half.
We’re unlocking the potential of the sticks and biomass around you and using it to create a portable fire that feels like a campfire but burns like gas. Plus we grab some of that energy and convert it into usable electricity that you can share out to your devices. It’s not every day that you can power your phone with a pinecone.
For more on edge-lighting, check out this video:

What was the most challenging part of starting your company? The most rewarding?
Tackling energy poverty doesn’t just take technology – it takes a business to make it all happen, bringing that technology to communities that need it most.
Emerging markets is a challenging field because it’s just that, emerging. There is no REI or in rural India, so our sales channels are totally different. We have to build them from scratch. Furthermore we are tasked with building a durable, aspirational, yet affordable product where the poorest households can find a path to ownership. This puts enormous pressure on finding cost-effective solutions that fit the real-world needs of our customers.
This all takes a lot of time, which requires capital to give us the runway to figure it out. This challenge is at the core of our business model, and why we use the revenue from our outdoor recreational markets to help us build the team and resources we need to solve some really tough problems.
We pursue a model we call parallel innovation, where we incubate core technologies with the potential to empower millions of families living in energy poverty around the world and then commercialize the resulting products in both developed and developing markets.
The near-term revenue generated from our developed markets give us the cash to invest in growing our developing markets business to a point of economic sustainability. This is different that a one-for-one model in that once our developing markets achieve critical mass, they can economically sustain themselves through customer-driven demand rather than relying on an influx of donations from another market.
One of the most rewarding parts of working at BioLite has been the response of the community in joining us on our mission and taking part in reimagining energy access on a personal scale.
What is next for BioLite?
In the outdoor recreational market, we want to give you a complete energy ecosystem that can power your life, totally off the grid. We continue to launch new innovations in three key areas that matter most when it comes to energy: Cook, Charge, Light.
We just launched a new Solar Panel that cuts out all the guesswork and helps you get the most from the sun — it shouldn’t be hard to capture rays! We’ve also got a new light, The PowerLight Mini, that is a best seller that is incredibly functional for both camping and also on your daily commute. Similar to how your mobile phone goes with you everywhere, we want to create energy products that fit seamlessly across your weekday and weekend.
In emerging markets, we’re ready to scale up thanks to years of targeted pilot programming and incredibly valuable learnings we’ve collected along the way.
You can see more about our progress in our Road To Impact series:
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