In February 2019 we kicked-off a collaboration with UC Berkeley’s MDP department, focused on modeling the impact the GoSol solution can have at a global scale. As part of the cooperation, Eerik and I were invited to present a guest lecture to the master students. Our lecture covered our lessons learned while starting up GoSol, and focused on what it takes to maximize impact when building new business and technology. Here I’m summarizing two key barriers to overcome, Understanding Your Users and designing a Viable Technology.
We started with a general introduction and by acknowledging that starting a business, and on top of that a mission driven one, is inherently difficult and one has to break a multitude of barriers to gain success.
After analyzing the state of the world and identifying the biggest potential for having impact, the next step is to work toward solutions and test them in the field.
A key challenge at the start is getting access to your potential end users, which may live half way around the world. Not only would it be expensive to test your solutions with these end users, it would require multiple trips back and forth to identify, contact, build a relationship with, install, monitor and follow-up with these end users. Running a piloting phase can quickly become an overwhelming undertaking.
At GoSol we partnered up with World Vision at that stage - World Vision has an innovation program called Weconomy facilitating western companies to work with their beneficiaries to co-create solutions. Through the program we were able to identify the best users, understand their requirements, pain-points and current energy usage. In a later step we then installed the technology with the most ideal pilot sites, and through the World Vision program were able to keep tabs on its usage even when were not onsite, as our local partner World Vision was collecting the data and monitoring the use in the field.
As you are developing your solution, you have to ask yourself ’what are the critical requirements for it to become scalable.’
We gave the example of the Lytefire , that was designed to tackle poverty and the consumption charcoal, firewood and fossil fuel consumption in the developing world.
According to our analysis, a viable technology in this context had to have the following properties to be able to outcompete existing, polluting fuel sources:
– Low Capital: The technology had to have a cost that can be refinanced in less than 5 years, ideally over the course of one season in order to be compatible with the way farmers and SME’s in the developing world invest. Where western companies can for example invest in solar panels with payback periods of 15 years or more, we had to lower cost to get below the 5, ideally 3 year mark.
– Quick returns: The other factor, apart from initial cost of the technology, is how much value the technology makes for the end user. If they are able to save bags of charcoal each day, the use of the technology has direct costs savings. For new businesses starting up that have no comparable benchmark, the use of our technology should lead to a higher profit margin as their cost of production is minimized with the fuel savings. Through the 2 year piloting phase in East Africa we were able to reach payback within less than 1.5 years.
– Usability & Maintenance: We had to design the technology from the ground up to be maintainable at the local level. Because replacement parts and maintenance services would be expensive to import once the technology is deployed, failure from wear and tear could lead to the abandonment of the technology. Having end users be able to maintain the system themselves would minimize this risk of downtime or abandonment, and keep maintenance costs low. Solving this challenge led to the development of our educational courses and programme, where we do not only provide the short training on how to use the technology, but provide a rich educational program that can train and equip new entrepreneurs to use and maintain the technology themselves.
– Further considerations: In developing an energy solution we also asked ourselves how the technology could be globally applicable, from supplying thermal energy to industry and small entrepreneurs alike. To have a global impact the technology should not only work in western infrastructures but even remote and off-grid villages. The technology should also be fabricated and deployed rapidly, without any bottlenecks to production, rare-earth metals or cost-prohibitive materials, fabrication, transportation and installation processes. Furthermore, we aimed at developing an energy source that would tackle a large percentage of global energy consumption. We found that over 50% of energy is consumed in the form of heat, and solar thermal energy can provide much of this thermal energy.
We went on to advise students on how to build their team, how to get through the piloting phase, how to attract funding at various stages of business development and how to constantly build your business model to drive your business towards its mission.
We rounded the lecture off by sharing more personal experience on staying motivated on our path, reassuring the class that it takes a lot of persistence to build up mission driven organizations, and then had a great Q&A session with the engaged students.