College of LAS « Illinois

A solar odyssey

A trip to India as an Illinois student inspired alum to start company that has sold more than 2 million solar lanterns

2014 LAS Recent Graduate Award winner Patrick Walsh (BA '07, economics and BS '07, engineering physics).
2014 LAS Recent Graduate Award winner Patrick Walsh (BA '07, economics and BS '07, engineering physics).

When Patrick Walsh first arrived in India with prototypes of an LED solar-powered lantern, his goal was to simply demonstrate that they could bring light to isolated areas in developing countries. So he was shocked when a man in India came up to him and asked to buy one of his jerry-rigged prototypes.

“I was incredulous,” says Walsh, a 2007 LAS alumnus. After all, his prototype was little more than a PVC tube that contained a battery and some electronics and had an LED light attached. Walsh sold the man a prototype, but he also went on to start a company that produced much more finely designed solar-powered lanterns. The company, Greenlight Planet, has exploded into a wildly successful business that brings light to areas of developing countries that don’t have electricity available to them.

Greenlight Planet sold a million solar lanterns in 2013 and has already topped that number in 2014. The solar lantern replaces the more dangerous and expensive kerosene lanterns used in developing countries. For this unique achievement, Walsh is winner of the 2014 LAS Recent Graduate Award.

“Two billion people in the developing world lack electricity and must use oil lamps for home lighting,” Walsh says. But the fuel for kerosene lamps can cost up to 10 percent of a person’s income in these countries, he points out. In addition, kerosene lamps release greenhouse gases, and breathing the fumes can be hazardous to your health.

And then there is the fire risk.

“Kerosene lamps are not sealed, so if you tip one over, you’ve got a flame and spilled fuel,” he says. “It’s common for children to tip over lamps and get burned. In every village, somebody has a story about a kerosene lamp fire.”

Solar-powered lanterns solve these problems.

Walsh grew up in Riverside, Ill., and came to the University of Illinois as a double major in physics and economics. He says it was happenstance that he was looking for a one-credit-hour class and stumbled across a survey course called “International Dimensions of Engineering,” taught by Professor Bruce Litchfield.

The class changed his life, Walsh says, for it made the idea of studying abroad appealing and it introduced him to the group Engineers Without Borders. Walsh joined Engineers Without Borders and says, “I was hooked from the first meeting. For the first time, I was lying awake at night thinking about what I was working on.”

In the summer of 2005, after Walsh’s sophomore year, he and several other Illinois students went to Orissa, India, to set up a generator and several pieces of processing equipment. But during the planning stage, they discovered that Orissa’s school was a quarter of a mile down the road, too far to receive electricity from the generator.

“It struck me that there was a new product on the shelves in the United States at the time—solar-powered garden lights,” he says. “They’re $3 apiece and you stick them in your lawn. They have a solar panel on top and an LED light,” so he thought people in Orissa might be able to use this kind of light in their school.

When Walsh returned to India in December 2006, he brought along supplies to build prototypes of solar-powered lanterns, and they became a big hit. Therefore, he steadily worked on the idea of commercially producing the lanterns, and during his senior year he no longer had to work alone, for he was joined by U of I engineering students Anish Thakkar and Mayank Sekhsaria—the other two co-founders of Greenlight Planet. Walsh’s design garnered the 2008 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize for innovation, a $30,000 award that allowed him to set up large-scale manufacturing of the lamps.

Today, the company has over 700 employees, not counting its 6,000-plus “micro-entrepreneurs.” These micro-entrepreneurs are villagers recruited to sell the product in their own communities—mostly in India and Africa, but also in Latin America and the Philippines.

Walsh says he saw this kind of grass-roots entrepreneurial system in action the very day he sold that first prototype. When he asked the man why he wanted to buy a prototype, the man responded by saying that he wanted to turn around and sell it to another villager.

“But it was years later that Anish [Thakkar] decided to focus on that model as the core of our business,” says Walsh.

The solar-powered lanterns are recharged during the day by plugging them into the small solar panel, and it’s enough to supply light throughout the night. If it is a cloudy day and you do not get a full charge, you can put the lantern on the lowest of three settings, which emits less light, and still make it through the night.

Greenlight Planet’s basic lantern emits three times as much light as a kerosene lantern, while the newer models give out as much as 15 times the light of a kerosene lantern. The two newer models even allow people to use the device to charge their cell phones, which are ubiquitous even in the most isolated regions of the world.

“This has been a real odyssey for us,” Walsh says. “Light is something we take for granted, but it’s a prerequisite for modern life.”

Doug Peterson
11/1/2014

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