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GravityLight: A People- and Planet-Friendly Bright Spot for Many Without Electricity

Image credit: Deciwatt

Each week leading up to our SB London conference, where the winner of the SB London Innovation Open (SBIOL) will be announced on November 18, we will get to know each of our four finalists. This week, meet GravityLight.

UK-based social enterprise Deciwatt is certainly living up to its goal of “doing more with less”: The company is capitalizing on the intangible but powerful natural phenomenon, gravity, to produce light for those who need it most.

GravityLight stemmed from a challenge by the charity Solar Aid to design an LED lantern to replace harmful kerosene lamps. The brief was to develop a light with a photovoltaic panel and battery for under $10,” says Félix Beaulieu, Chief of Strategy & Operations at Deciwatt. “However, as [founder] Martin Riddiford looked at the basic cost of materials, it would be a huge challenge to meet the target price point. He realized that the key would be to design a light that didn’t need batteries, which were driving up the cost, had a short life span and were not the most efficient use of energy.”  

With the challenge of eliminating batteries from the design, Martin looked to manually powered options, such as wind-up radios or pedal-powered lights, and was inspired by weights and gravity. His goal became to find the right ratio between time spent and power generated.

GravityLightFour years later, Riddiford and his co-inventor, Jim Reeves, developed GravityLight, which can produce 25 minutes of light upon descending a weight, which only takes three seconds to lift.

With no batteries and no need for solar energy, GravityLight can be used multiple times with no operational costs. As a result, it is in a position to effect real change for people living without reliable access to electricity, particularly those who rely heavily on kerosene.

“The original core target market are the people in developing countries who rely partly or totally on kerosene lamps for their daily lighting, “ says Beaulieu. “Even with the 0.1W of power it produces, GravityLight produces a light superior to kerosene lamps and can also power various other low-power devices such as torches and radios.”

The International Energy Agency states that approximately 1.3 billion people — almost 20 percent of world’s population — lack reliable access to electricity, resulting in a heavy reliance on kerosene lamps in developing countries, which is expensive and damaging to both users’ health and the environment.

Deciwatt reports that the quick rate at which the fuel burns forces users to spend almost 20 percent of their limited income, in extreme cases, on a toxic product. Kerosene users are also extremely susceptible to burns, eye infections, respiratory problems and cancer. In addition, kerosene is also one of the dirtier fossil fuels: While natural gas emits 53 kgCO2 per mmBtu, kerosene emits 75 kg CO2 per mmBTU; a single kerosene lamp, burning for four hours a day, emits 100kg of CO2 per year.

However, Deciwatt’s ambitious goal to serve the underserved with GravityLight is not without its challenges.

“We are talking here about the BoP (Bottom of the Pyramid) market, so mainly in developing countries, both urban and rural areas. It's a massive market, two billion people, with the majority in sub-Saharan Africa, India and China,” Beaulieu says. “We know it's not an easy market to penetrate, with complex distribution channels and slow adoption rate but it is the one of the future and this is where the biggest needs are.”

Deciwatt states that in November 2012, GravityLight was at the risk of being shelved as the team could not acquire the $55,000 needed to launch its initial field test. Fortunately, they took their project to Indiegogo and raised $400,000, exceeding their original goal by over 600 percent.

Since then, they have secured roughly 50 additional partnerships, and GravityLight continues to bring home accolades for the Deciwatt team — they were voted one of the top 10 most innovative energy companies from Fast Company, a winner of the 2013 Invention Award from Popular Science; voted one of Sustainia100’s most innovative sustainable solutions for 2013, and now a finalist for Sustainable Brands Innovation Open London.

“Our short-term goals include a research study that will be conducted independently by our partners during the field trial, starting in November with the first thousand units, to assess the efficiency of the design, the quality of the user experience, the social impact and the market demand,” says Beaulieu. “Improving millions of lives is our long-term objective.”

Next week: neighbourly.com

SB Issues in Focus For more examples of #startups increasing social and environmental sustainability through disruptive innovation, check out our Issue in Focus.

Candice D McLeod is an Energy Associate in facilities management at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), working on energy efficiency and whole systems sustainability, writing on the intersection of business & sustainability for Sustainable Brands. She received a Masters… [Read more about Candice McLeod]


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