Bringing Light to the Dark Corners of the World
By Alyssa Schoeneman, AEL Intern
When it comes to affordable electrical energy, for many impoverished Indian citizens, Patrick Walsh is the light at the end of the tunnel. Pun intended.
Walsh began working on solar-powered lanterns in 2005 while spending a summer in India with a Illinois student organization, Engineers Without Borders (EWB). He received his first funding independent of EWB in 2006, from a US EPA grant, in addition to receiving “tons of assistance from the Technology Entrepreneur Center,” Walsh explained. He graduated in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Bachelor of the Arts in Economics.
“The College of Engineering and Engineers Without Borders opened my eyes to the lives of people I'd never met: hundreds of millions of rural villagers in India living with hazardous and expensive kerosene lamps,” Walsh said. “They inspired me to solve that problem, and the Technology Entrepreneur Center at Illinois helped me see how to solve the problem quickly, using a for-profit business rather than a philanthropic approach.”
Walsh founded Gleenlight Planet, Inc. in 2006 with Illinois Electrical and Computer Engineering '07 graduates Mayank Sekhsaria and Anish Thakkar. The company now employs more than 50 people, who are on location in both China and India.
Greenlight Planet, Inc. combines “cutting-edge technology with innovative distribution networks” to commercialize low-power LED lanterns, its website explains. The new lights are bright, long-lasting and practical, and are affordable enough that villagers can immediately purchase them in cash.
The company’s solar-powered lantern, the Sun King, has no recurring costs and a three-year battery life; it is built tough for village conditions, has a water-sealed construction and comes with a one-year warranty. Walsh and his colleagues are committed to making a long-term difference.
“The desperate need for a better rural energy product has always been the driving factor,” Walsh explained. “We receive e-mails and calls on a daily basis from people who are searching far and wide for a better solution, and we get thank you notes and photos from our customers nearly as often telling us how much the products have helped. The feedback is what keeps us motivated.”
So what was the hardest part about starting a business?
“At the beginning, especially for first-time entrepreneurs, I think the most difficult thing is checking assumptions in the business model, as lack of confidence can cause us to slow down drastically without even realizing it,” Walsh said. “That often just means getting advice externally on our ideas and vetting them.”
Later on, Walsh speculated, the hard part becomes managing growth of occasional tasks and casual communication into an efficient, large organization while remaining nimble.
“I'll have to get back to you in a year or two on how to do that!” he joked.
For Walsh, he said, the most enjoyable part of the job is the rush of dreaming up a new design or of watching a new design enter the market. And his experiences to date have taught him a lot.
“The first thing I learned is that in many situations, business is a faster and often better mechanism for improving the world than philanthropy,” Walsh said. “The second thing is that you don't need to be a genius or a well-connected ‘business’ person to see a need and build a company to meet the need. It's identifying an idea worth pursuing that is the hard part.”
But Walsh didn’t gain all of his experience in the field; he credits the University of Illinois with preparing him well for his life as a working professional.
“I would have floundered without the steadfast support and mentorship of professors in the Technology Entrepreneur Center, especially Professors Brian Lilly and Andy Singer,” he said. “Together with the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership, they have built a community, small but growing, of entrepreneurial initiative at Illinois that is critical to the success of early-stage companies. It is that constant interaction with other entrepreneurs and advisors that validates ideas and lets student entrepreneurs, move forward confidently before they have broad experience.”
And Greenlight Planet, Inc. has not stopped moving forward. The company is currently expanding its distribution network on the ground in India; hundreds of villagers are currently earning additional income by selling Greenlight’s products in their local areas. The company is also expanding its product line to access “even poorer consumers,” and also to include a product that will charge other devices such as mobile phones and radios.
“Light was just the beginning,” Walsh said.
And for Greenlight Planet, Inc., it will be far from the end.