Thanks to Illinois alumni, many around the globe have the "green light" for cell use

2/14/2013 2:37:00 PM

Cell phone use in the developing world has exploded over the past few years. Today, for as little as $10, a household in rural India, for example, can purchase a cell phone, and cell towers have proliferated even in rural areas. The problem is that about half of those households, despite having cell phone coverage, still lack an electricity connection to charge their batteries.

“It’s stunning if you think about it,” said University of Illinois alumnus, Patrick Walsh (BS '07, Physics, BA '07, Economics), who founded a company, Greenlight Planet that offers a solution to the phone-charging problem.

Greenlight Planet originally developed a solar powered LED light called ‘Sun King’ to meet the need for families without power to be able to light their homes without having to use kerosene lamps, which produce harmful gases. The organization has now expanded its products to include one, the Sun King Pro, which can also be used to charge cell phones. It is now the highest selling product out of the three that the company offers.

“You already have a battery in the lamp that is about the same size of the battery in the cell phone,” explained Walsh. “You basically pump charge from that battery into the phone. There are some basic electronics to do that, but overall, it’s a pretty straightforward technological challenge. We provide a set of adapters that connects to various popular phones, so customers can plug the phone into their light and charge their phone.”


The Sun King Pro allows consumers to plug their cell phone directly into the light.
The Sun King Pro allows consumers to plug their cell phone directly into the light.

The Sun King Pro earned one of five Lighting Global 2012 Outstanding Product Awards at the Third International Off-Grid Lighting Conference and Trade Fair in Dakar, Senegal. The product, which is now being distributed primarily in India, Africa, Haiti and Cambodia, all sell for about $35.


Once the product was ready, sales and distribution to inaccessible rural consumers became the company’s main challenge. Fellow Illinois graduates and co-founders Anish Thakkar (BS, 2007, Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Mayank Sekhsaria (BS 2007, Electrical Engineering), joined Walsh to take up that enormous task.

At the beginning of 2007, Greenlight Planet had only one full-time employee, Walsh, and about 50 users (from test market trials). By 2009, after Thakkar and Skhsaria launched the company’s sales in India, that number increased to 20 employees and 70,000 users. By the end of last year, thanks in large part to $4 million in venture capital from Bamboo Finance and ZS Associates founder, Dr. Prabha Sinha, Greenlight Planet stood at over 350 full-time employees (not including independent sales agents) and 3.5 million users.

While the technology could come in handy for many in developed countries who camp or work outside for long periods of time, Walsh said the company hasn’t yet marketed the Sun King Pro to those people.

“We don’t even bother because the demand is so enormous in the developing world that we feel like we’d just get distracted by that.”

Greenlight Planet and another start-up company D.light Design, are the top producers of solar lighting to the developing world. Many of the world’s top lighting companies haven’t yet tapped into that marketplace in large part because, in Walsh’s mind, they haven’t seen first-hand the need.

“Before understanding what life is like on the ground, you don’t have a sense of how to develop product services technologies to address the problems,” Walsh said. “Many engineers don’t understand the problem because they haven’t been there. I got to see first-hand what people were doing for energy.”

Walsh got that experience in 2005, when, as an undergraduate at Illinois, he joined a group of six students traveling to northern rural India with the University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. EWB is an international nonprofit organization committed to advancing the quality of life in impoverished countries via socioeconomically and ecologically sustainable engineering projects. Walsh was involved in an EWB project to bring biofuel generator systems to a village in India.

“I was a physics major and interested in basic science, not engineering, before I started working with Engineers Without Borders,” Walsh said. “It’s an organization that educates engineers about the problems that exist around the world and was a transformative experience for me.”

Walsh discovered that about 1/3 to 1/2 of the one billion people in India lack reliable energy and many can’t afford more than about one hour of energy per day. The same can be said for many in the villages of Africa. Walsh reports that it’s not likely that those people are getting on the power grid in the next few years, while many fall off the grid as fast as those who join it.

“The trips to India were inspiring because we could see all these problems that were crying out for attention and very few companies were working on them. You could see so many opportunities. Everything needed a solution. The reason they’re not addressed is not because they are particularly difficult, it’s because there’s often not a lot of profit margin in developing products for these markets.”

Having seen the problem, Walsh and his partners went to work on developing the prototype and worked through the College’s Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC) and professors Brian Lilly and Andy Singer to learn about beginning a start-up.

“EWB and TEC were the perfect incubators for Greenlight Planet,” Walsh said.

Providing a solution to the cell phone charging issue is just one in a host of problems Walsh hopes to help solve in the coming years. He indicates that recent studies have shown that businesses, not direct foreign aid from nations, are the most effective way to reach out and solve problems in the developing world. Walsh believes that through the help from venture capitalists, through the work of employees in its research and procurement wing, and through an established distribution network, Greenlight Planet is poised to provide additional products to solve the needs.

“Sitting in the U.S. is fine,” Walsh said. “But even if you have the best product sitting on your desk, but getting it to the rural developing world requires distribution. Now that we have a sales force and the mechanism to manufacture products, we want to be a company that offers solutions in a variety of sectors.”

“Having grown up with kerosene lanterns in rural Bihar, a core Sun King market, I understand the enormous opportunity and the tremendous economic and health benefits of our solar lamps,” Sinha said on his decision to back the company. “I am pleased to continue to invest in Greenlight Planet’s great products and innovative distribution model. But above all, I am investing in its founding team who will undoubtedly continue on the path of learning and innovation.”

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Mike Koon, writer/editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-1256.