When Biolite co-founder Jonathan Cedar was growing up, his parents would regularly come home to find all of the handsets on the house phones had been switched. "I was the kid who broke all his parents' stuff trying to reinvent it and fix it," he says. After getting a degree in engineering and environmental science, he secured an internship with New York City firm Smart Design, where he would meet his business partner Alec Drummond (then the company's senior model-maker). Cedar immediately knew he wanted to apprentice for Drummond, whom he identified as the best craftsman he'd ever met. "He could turn a toilet paper tube into a hoverboard," Cedar raves. "The dude is just really brilliant. For me, it was exciting to hang out and make things with him."
He could turn a toilet paper tube into a hoverboard
The company set about creating a product that could be fully detached from the grid, so the question quickly became: How to power the thing? They landed on thermoelectric power, which Cedar describes as "kind of like solar panels for heat instead of light. We harness a little bit of thermal heat, turn it into electrical energy, and then we have this self-perpetuating thing that turns wood into gas, and burns super-clean." While attending an advanced wood combustion conference—laugh a minute, those things—they made a discovery that would alter the way they chose to implement their technology. "Half the planet is cooking on open fires," says Cedar of their epiphany. "It's killing 4 million people a year, and there are no good technologies to address it? That was a total eye-opener for us."
So they raised some money—asking for $45,000 on Kickstarter and pulling in over $1 million—tapped their two favorite former co-workers, and started engineering stoves in the beginning of 2011. "We felt like there was a real urgency to work on these problems for the emerging markets," says Cedar. And there was support brewing for the cause: when Hillary Clinton announced the launch of the global alliance for clean cookstoves, she cited Biolite's technological advances as an example of innovation in the field. "I was in India watching this at three in the morning in a guest house somewhere," Cedar says. "I think I woke up half the place," he adds, laughing.
When their campstove hit the market, Cedar figured they'd be able to sell about 10,000—but they ended up selling three times as many. That success only served to galvanize their work on the home stove. "It's 10 times more expensive for poor people in developing countries to purchase energy than it is for us in the U.S.," says Cedar, "and families are spending upwards of 30 percent of their income on energy—whether it's buying wood, charcoal, or kerosene, or paying a dude five miles down the road to charge your mobile phone a couple times a week." Biolite aims to save these families money in the long-term by offering a tool that can address multiple energy needs at once (their newest models are able to charge mobile phones while burning fuel), while improving the health of its users.
Currently, their home stove is available in India, Uganda, and Kenya, with one pilot program ongoing in Ghana. "You realize that these are really helpful tools," says Cedar, "and these families are just families. No one is dropping to their knees to thank us—it's simply: 'This is really useful, and I bought it. Thanks for that.'"
For more, visit biolitestove.com.