This post has been updated. Scroll to the bottom for the very latest.
Ryan Ahearn took a deep breath, tasting the dusty, kerosene-saturated air of a Maasai village in Kenya, and watched his JikoPower generator charge a Samsung Galaxy phone miles from the nearest electrical grid. Just two months prior, Ahearn and his team of fellow University of Washington students captured the UW Business Plan Competition grand prize of $25,000 with a charging device that converts energy from heat stoves into a reusable power source for electronics. They launched a Kickstarter onOctober 18 to bring in greater funding, and expand their efforts.
Ahearn estimates communities in developing nations like Kenya spend more than 10% of their income charging electronics. Like the Maasai, they have no outlets, no battery packs. Someone is chosen to gather up all the drained devices and drive to the nearest charging post, where they are plugged in beside hundreds of other devices for hours at a time.
“We had to go and see it for ourselves, meet the people, and witness their pain points,” said Ahearn. “Our customers are people and we empathize with them.”
The JikoPower Spark can be used for camping and in emergency situations, but Ahearn hopes that it will also be a catalyst in poorer areas where power sources are scarce, and electricity is priced at a premium in what has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
“Our product is designed to help people who don’t have the luxuries we have,” said Ahearn. “They can turn around and sell the electrical charges or collaborate with their neighbors to charge their phones.”
Ultimately, Ahearn wants to sell 1 million devices over the next 5 years, which in turn, could improve the lives of up to 10 million people. His team decided the first step would involve a move toward crowdfunding. The JikoPower Kickstarter will highlight a short-term goal of fulfilling 5,000 orders in the next 3 to 6 months.
“We’re ready to stick our necks out,” said Ahearn. “Everyone who has supported us and encouraged us has shown that JikoPower has value and is worth believing in.”
For Ahearn, it goes back to the UW Business Plan Competition hosted by the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, and the night that changed his life. JikoPower had won other competitions but winning the BPC told him that his team was really onto something.
“We competed against really awesome people, with really awesome ideas,” he said. “When times get tough, I remind myself about that.”
The JikoPower Kickstarter launch party was an invite-only event, but the team posted pictures and reaction their website. The party featured demonstrations about the product, presentations on the journey to Africa, and opportunities for people to win some of the items brought back from their trip. Ahearn was joined in Kenya by JikoPower vice president Marene Wiley and sales and marketing director Paul Denisenko. The rest of the JikoPower team was at the party as well including engineers Aaron Owen and Tessa Gomes, and Kate Garbe and Emileigh Thylin.
Ahearn says he thinks of their journey often. He is in his final year at UW while the majority of the team has already graduated. Some days he meets with venture capitalists as company CEO before attending class as a regular student. But in the back of his mind, he remembers the smell of kerosene and the look on the faces of the Maasai.
“This entrepreneur stuff is an emotional rollercoaster,” Ahearn said. “But when I am frustrated, when I want to throw in the towel, I think of all of those people who believe in us and know we can make a difference.”
UPDATED NOVEMBER 3, 2016
JikoPower has topped 40% backing on Kickstarter with 25 days left to go in their campaign. The team issued an update on their Kickstarter page saying “A huge thank you to all of our backers for your feedback and support!” JikoPower also produced a short video on how you can support their company moving forward.