By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Nov 08, 2015
Solar Light Bulbs
A patent agent and serial inventor whose innovations span parabolic skis, fogless goggles, and motorized bicycle wheels, Katsaros came up with his solar lightbulb concept in 2010. "I was looking to get back into entrepreneurialism," says Katsaros.
That was January. After a five-month "whirwind" of prototyping, patenting, and branding, the first Nokero bulb, the N100, hit the market, he says.
The initial target markets included construction, outdoor recreation, emergency services, and generally people who needed lighting but didn't have easy access to an electrical outlet.
But he soon realized a much bigger need for the product in the developing world. "The world poor are spending $30 billion a year on kerosene for lighting," says Katsaros.
That's bad in a lot of different ways. Not only does that figure represent a staggering 20 percent of income, kerosene is unhealthy to breathe, notably flammable, and poisonous for a toddler to drink -- and often stored in a Coke bottle.
"There are so many citable, documented problems attributed to living with fuel in the home," he says, noting Nokero is short for "no kerosene."
Shantytowns go up in flames from one bad lantern -- people who live in abject poverty are eight times to die in a fire. "It contributes to the cycle of poverty," notes Katsaros.
The Nokero lightbulb is now on its fourth iteration, the N233. "It's the world's most efficient lightbulb," says Katsaros. "It's crazy how good it works."
A day of sunlight can power the LED-based N233 for up to 15 hours, the battery lasts five years, and it's smart enough to keep the electrons in storage rather than reversing course to the panels at night, a longtime hurdle for solar -- all for $17.99.
"We've added a lot of intelligence to this thing," he notes. "What separates a Bugati from a Hyundai is all of the engineering that goes into making it ultra-high performance." The patent-pending technology that "actively controls the flow of electrons” is the secret sauce, says Katsaros.
It's light years ahead of the first Nokero lightbulb. "The technology has increased eightfold," says Katsaros. "Our pursuit of making it affordable and energy-efficient makes it two times more efficient than any other solar product."
The new "Buy a Light, Give a Light” program, customers at the company's website can help get the lightbulbs to those who could use them most, says Katsaros. "When they buy one, we're going to send one to someone who needs lighting," he explains. The company is working with the Red Cross, Project C.U.R.E., and Habitat for Humanity to distribute the lights in places like Guatemala, Nigeria, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
"The idea is to tie Western consumers and their purchasing to doing good for someone else they won't ever meet halfway around the world," Katsaros says. "It truly benefits all of us."
Nokero designs and prototypes in Denver and manufactures the bulbs in China. Katsaros, who travels to China several times a year, has worked with his contract manufacturers for 13 years. "They're actually equity shareholders in the company," he says.
Challenges: "In the startup game, it's just the conviction in your idea being a world-changing idea and keeping that energy going," says Katsaros.
Opportunities: Bigger lighting projects. "We could go upmarket substantially because we started at the base of the pyramid," says Katsaros. "We happened to solve this small problem with efficiency, but it could be scaled up to streetlamps."
Needs: Katsaros identifies three prime needs. The first is "resellers in the United States and channels that buy month after month."
Second is capital. "We're in the middle of a capital raise," he says. "We're in discussion with natural grocer type outlets and outdoor recreation companies. Most of them operate on net 60 and that's really difficult."
And the third need is "to just spread this story on Nokero" that melds cutting-technology and social impact.