Crowdfunding Lights Up A New Social Venture

Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork's startup produces a solar-powered light designed for use in disaster-stricken areas.
December 20, 2011

Anna Stork (pictured, right) and Andrea Sreshta (pictured, left) were second-year students at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture in January of 2010 when a powerful earthquake killed 230,000 people in Haiti, injured more than 300,000 and displaced over 1.5 million.  “The professor in our design studio immediately decided to focus on disaster relief and infrastructure projects,” recalls Stork.  So Stork, Sreshta and their fellow students put their design talents to work on innovative products and processes that might be put to use for disaster relief.  Their startup, LuminAid, was born shortly thereafter.

“We were reading about conditions in the tent cities,” says Stork, 25, “and there were lots of stories about how unsafe it was for women and children.”  Within a week, she and Sreshta, 28, came up with an idea for a solar-powered inflatable light, comprised of a tiny solar panel laminated to the inside a water-proof plastic bag. Charged for a few hours in the sun, it would provide up to six hours of light. “Solar made a lot of sense because the technology was pretty inexpensive and we could ship it cheaply,” says Stork.

The partners designed and patented their light through Columbia University, which, Stork says, has one of the largest technology transfer offices in the country. Columbia owns the patent, but licenses it back to Stork and Sreshta and provides them with both technical and legal support to discourage copycats. Stork, who has an engineering background, built the solar circuit. The partners worked with a Chinese manufacturer to create the inflatable bag “but we didn’t tell them what the whole project was,” says Stork.

It was clear to the two graduate students that their idea was more than just a class project, so they brought on a business school student to help them enter a few business plan competitions. They were finalists in several, and then hit the jackpot when they won the Columbia Venture Competition in May of this year. The $15,000-prize provided the startup capital they needed to continue prototyping and for Sreshta to travel to India to seek out partnerships with the not-for-profit organizations that would distribute the product.

As soon as they had manufacturing and distribution agreements lined up, they decided to test their concept by seeking additional funds on the crowdfunding site, IndieGogo.  They posted LuminAid on the site on November 1, seeking a modest $10,000 by soliciting donations: $10 would buy a light for an orphanage or school in India or Uganda; $25 would do the same, plus the donor would receive a light, as well. Greater levels of funding came with more perks, like t-shirts; three donors even pledged $1,000 each to provide 100 lights to an orphanage.

By the end of December, IndieGogo had generated a whopping $51,829 in funding for LuminAid, far exceeding the founders’ expectations. But it didn’t happen by accident. A friend who volunteered to do publicity e-mailed several blogs and the product was featured on the gadget blog, Gizmodo. “From there, the word spread and we raised $10,000 in six days,” says Stork. A promotion on Facebook, a mention in Fast Company and a partnership with the respected not-for-profit Pencils of Promise all gave LuminAid credibility and visibility.

Now, Stork (who is working full-time on LuminAid) and Sreshta (in business school at Chicago Booth) have begun production and are anticipating that 4,000 lights will be shipped in mid-January to both the company’s not-for-profit partners and individual consumers. They’ve also received requests for samples from the International Red Cross, the U.S. Navy and some private disaster relief companies—the kinds of organizations that they hope will become paying customers. “It’s really incredible how many people the IndieGoGo campaign reached,” says Stork. “Now, we just need to keep people really excited and keep that community going.”

Image credit: Courtesy subjects