For Steve Katsaros, it all started with a nagging idea. Walking by a construction site one evening, he noticed a rope of construction lights all drawing power from a chugging, polluting generator. Immediately, a question came to his mind: Was it necessary?
The next day, he went home and sketched a simple but elegant solution to the problem: a solar-powered light bulb. Four days later, he had a patent application in hand.
The bulbs he designed — which run on batteries powered by photovoltaic cells and shine for up to seven hours per charge — last three years and pay for themselves in a few weeks.
In the interview below, Katsaros talks about the path that led him from a nagging idea to an environmentally-friendly renewable energy solution aimed at changing the lives of one billion people.
“It quickly became apparent,” says Katsaros, “that the need for accessible solar lighting was not at construction sites in the developed world, but rather in the homes of the 1.4 billion people that live without access to electric lighting.”
To meet that need, Katsaros’ company produces several models of solar bulbs for distribution in countries such as India, Ethiopia, Haiti and Pakistan, where the most common and affordable form of lighting comes from kerosene lamps and other fossil fuels, whose use produces an estimated 190 million tons of CO pollution annually — the amount produced by 30 million cars.
Tackling this problem has led to more than just the name of his company: Nokero — from the phrase ‘No Kerosene.’
Beyond the environmental and health benefits of his bright idea — it is estimated that living with a kerosene lamp is like smoking 40 cigarettes a day — Katsaros’ invention allows businesses to stay open longer, children to study longer, families to live more safely, and medical personnel to better provide humanitarian aid in event of a disaster, in areas without electricity. “The possibilities are endless,” says Katsaros.
Last year, Nokero took in more than $2 million in revenue, reports Inc. magazine. Being a for-profit company, Katsaros told Inc. this month, is essential. He can grow faster than a nonprofit, he says, which lets him make more bulbs and get them where they’re needed quicker. “I want to prove,” says Katsaros, that bringing a product to the world’s poorest consumers can “grow something that changes the world.”
With over one million lights distributed in over 120 countries, that adds up to an additional annual income of $383 million for low-wage workers globally — and more than one billion hours of added productivity around the world annually.
Not bad for a company this Greek American launched in 2010 with $60,000. “Selling solar lights is how we’re going to change the world,” says Katsaros.
A collegiate inventor
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to make the cut,” at Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering, “but I wound up with straight A’s my freshman year. At Purdue, I found professors that embraced what I was doing.”
Guided by one such professor, Dr. Alan McDonald, Katsaros entered one of his inventions into the then-relatively new Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC). “My roommate and I were just crammed into an 8’x15’ dorm room, and I wasn’t going to leave my bike outside in the Indiana winter,” he explained. “So, I designed a bicycle overhead storage rack. I entered it into the CIC, and it won,” in 1995.
Although that invention didn’t generate much money for Katsaros, his experience with and exposure to Invent Now, the organization that runs the Collegiate Inventors Competition as well as the National Inventors Hall of Fame, left an impression.
“It was through them that I learned the fundamentals of marketing, finance, design, execution,” he said. “I had offers from companies like Boeing right out of school, but with that knowledge, I knew I was going to strike out and do my own thing.”
An interview with Steve Katsaros*
QUESTION: Could you tell us a little about your background and when you started inventing new products?
I have a mechanical engineering degree and have passed the USPTO patent practitioner exam, so I am a patent agent. I have been inventing products since high school, with my first commercial product being sold during my junior year in high school. In college, I developed and sold a product into the alpine skiing industry–the first production run was 14,000 pairs of skis by Dynastar. The industry has widely adopted this technology and it is the current standard in the industry. I have developed ski boots for K2, lighting for Westinghouse, etc.
QUESTION: What were the first steps you took after having the idea for Nokero?
The first product was sketched on January 23, 2010. On January 28, 2010, the first patent application was filed. On February 14, 2010, I received the first pre-production sample from a factory that specializes in solar products. We launched the company on June 10, 2010 and we were on CNN with Ali Velshi on June 16, 2010.
CNN TELLS THE STORY
QUESTION: What are the differences between selling your product in the United States and overseas? How do you handle the international market and what are your strategies for achieving successful sales goals?
We are in a very difficult, yet rewarding type of business labeled by others as social entrepreneurship. This phrase is best described as developing and selling products with more than profit in-mind, and typical benefit mankind. I don’t think about it much, but for me, it is defined by selling products to the very bottom of the economic pyramid (BOP). In order to sell products to the BOP, it requires unique relationships far outside the normal routes of big-box retailers (e.g. Walmart). Our customers include Eureka Forbes, that operates in India and has 10,000 door-to-door sales people. We also deliver products to remote places via the registered mail system (120 countries).
QUESTION: What was your biggest challenge in the process of bringing Nokero to market?
Remembering to have fun. This is tough work, but it is so important to remember to have fun. I flew 130,000 miles last year to places like Pakistan, Kenya, Rwanda, China, Mexico, U.A.E., etc. This takes a toll and it is hard to remember to take a breath during all of it and enjoy the experience.
QUESTION: What is a perfect work day for you?
Perfect day? Perfect day (fun): getting on Solidworks (a 3D product design program) and pushing out of my head so that the next steps can occur. Perfect day (rewarding): going into the field and spending time with our customers, the 1.3 billion who live without electricity.
QUESTION: What’s the secret to a successful invention?
Simplicity. Remove unnecessary features. Focus on manufacturability. Make sure it is news-worthy to get free press.
QUESTION: What’s the best invention advice you have ever received?
Double the ex-works price to set your FOB price.