The Entrepreneurs Grill is a live stream webcast on Boston.com/hive hosted by Innovation Economy columnist and blogger Scott Kirsner that features a business pitch from a start-up, followed by feedback from a Boston-area investor and questions from viewers. Below is an edited version of last week’s show.
THE PITCH: Anna Stork and a cofounder launched LuminAID in response to the need for portable lighting in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake left more than a million people homeless. The company makes an inflatable, solar-powered lighting device that is also sold for home-safety and outdoor uses. Her proposal was reviewed by Dustin Dolginow, a principal at Atlas Venture in Cambridge.
STORK: After the Haiti earthquake, 1.3 million people were homeless and forced to live in really densely packed tent cities that were in complete darkness at night. Women and children, after dark, were having lots of safety threats. So we saw that a portable light could really improve safety and comfort. But lighting products really weren’t designed to be shipped in large volumes. So we designed the LuminAID, which packs flat. For every eight flashlights, you can pack and ship 50 LuminAID lights. It recharges in approximately five hours of sunlight and produces between eight and 10 hours of bright LED light.
So in designing LuminAID and optimizing its mobility, its design, and performance we realized that its features — lightweight, waterproof, simple design — make it a really useful product for home emergency kits or for camping. Our customers range from small and large [nongovernmental agencies] to individuals purchasing the lights just for a replacement to a flashlight. We have a “give light, get light” sales model, where every purchase from our site by an individual for personal use sponsors a matching light to one of our “give light” partner organizations to distribute to an area without electricity.
DOLGINOW: So you guys are for-profit, right? Not nonprofit?
STORK: We’re a for-profit social venture. So basically we partner with nonprofit organizations to distribute the matching lights, but our goal is to be a for-profit company.
KIRSNER: I’m curious about why it’s inflatable.
STORK: People always ask that. It’s inflatable to diffuse the light like a lantern. So if you think of a lantern, it always has glass around it, or a lampshade — it has a lampshade effect. So it actually produces a quality of light that is more useful for situations like reading or as ambient light in a tent. LEDs produce a lot of glare in your eyes, so it helps with that.
DOLGINOW: How’s it being used in the first-world cases? Outside of the home? Are people using it regularly or are they using it as sort of an emergency only?
STORK: We have seen a lot of people really excited to take it on their camping trips. I think that’s the use that people are really buying it the most — for camping and outdoor use. But then a lot of people really do like it for their emergency kits at home. [Hurricane] Sandy and things like that have really hit home for a lot of people and help them see that it’s really important to have those supplies at the ready.
DOLGINOW: How do you guys think about being not disaster-centric, because it’s kind of lumpy, unpredictable, not the best qualities for a sustainable business.
KIRSNER: I think what he’s asking is, ‘Can you turn it into a pool toy?’ Like, you’re in the pool, it’s nighttime, you’re tossing it around.
STORK: We did a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and presold around 3,500 lights in over 25 countries to individuals. We realized the global interest in a product like this. People saw uses for it in all different contexts, whether it be putting it beside their canoe at night to paddle, all different types of situations. I think that its design is simple enough and it just applies to a lot of different types of contexts.
DOLGINOW: So what’s sort of the next phase? Where are you guys at now? In 24 months, where do you hope to be?
STORK: Well our focus right now is really on building our e-commerce platform within the US, just really getting that scaled up, getting all of our marketing scaled up.
We’re also focused on finding international distributors in some of the countries where we see really good markets. And then our focus will be on retail stores in the US and just trying to get lights on the ground through different organizations.
KIRSNER: Anna, are you looking for a kind of venture capital investment or angel investment right now? Or are you really interested more in grant funding or nondilutive funding?
STORK: We’re not necessarily looking for investment right now. But we are very interested in scaling and know that scaling goes hand in hand with getting investment. So we’re open to that as well and we know that that’s a very important part.
DOLGINOW: I think it’s a meeting I would definitely take. When I first saw the product — the light — I thought it was really targeting kind of the nonprofit angle. Hearing that it was for-profit and understanding that crises are probably going to be happening more frequently, and light is a very important need in those situations, it’s an interesting market. At the same time it’s important to know that hardware is kind of a tough space to raise money in. Seeing if and how that could be a fit could be important. Finding partners like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who have global reach and feet on the ground in places where this could be useful — I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive — as partners would be helpful.