At 37, Steve Katsaros has quietly taken it upon himself to light the night in countries throughout the world, one bulb at a time.
Starting with the solar-powered light bulb he designed in January 2010, he has made it his business to address the lack of electricity in countries throughout the world. And while it’s a noble goal, his company is poised to make a profit. That makes him and his company, Nokero, models of social entrepreneurship, the concept that merges smart business practices with the good will of humanitarianism.
“We have a huge following that is passionate about our pursuit," Katsaros points out, "and it’s much easier than trying to make and sell something that doesn’t contribute to our quality of life.”
Bard Center Winner
Katsaros, a graduate of the Bard Center for Entrepreneurship at the School of Business, didn’t set out to save the world. For as long as he can remember, he has invented things. He enrolled at the Bard Center to learn more about the business end of product design, and in 2003, he developed a motorized bicycle wheel. Revopower, his company, won first place in that year’s Business Plan Competition.
“At first I just thought it would be cool," he laughs, "but then I understood that one of the steps for a society to advance itself was to move people and goods around. When you’re only relying on your feet or a bicycle, there is a huge gap between that and what you could do if you had a cycle or a car.”
Bringing it to market was harder than he thought; five years and several million dollars later he pulled the plug.
Building a better light bulb
But while working as a patent agent in 2009, Katsaros had another spark of inspiration as he drove past a road crew lit with bulbs hanging from extension cords. He wondered how it would look if the bulbs were solar powered, and in January 2010, he sketched one and filed a patent four days later.
“Most people spend years on something like this,” he says, but because he had been through it before, he was able to hit the market with the world’s first solar-powered bulb on June 10. Six days later he was on CNN.
“It has been an amazing ride,” says Tom Boyd, Nokero’s marketing director. “Steve is a brilliant designer with an amazing capacity to see what will make people’s lives better.”
Nokero N100 bulbs contain their own solar cells and rechargeable batteries that power four LED lights, and sell for $15 ($6 in bulk). With the charge from one day in the sun, they run for two to four hours, providing a clean replacement for smoky kerosene lamps used throughout the world.
Within two months after their launch, bulbs had been sold in 30 countries and shipped to test markets in Liberia, Pakistan, Haiti and Nicaragua. Superstar soccer player Didier Drogba from Ivory Coast has since endorsed them for use in Africa. Based on feedback from the test markets, Katsaros improved the design and in November 2010 launched the N200 that can last up to 8 hours on a single charge when switched to a “low” setting.
Although also suited for back-country adventures and power outages, his bulb was perfect for the 1.6 billion worldwide with no access to electricity. “We didn’t set up the company to go after this market. I didn’t know anything about energy poverty, but as I looked for a market for the product, I realized it was a huge need,” Katsaros says.
In June 2011, Nokero went to the Aid and International Development Forum in Washington, D.C., to introduce four new solar-powered products: phone and AA battery chargers; a device that provides backup power for individual light sockets when the power grid goes down; and a rechargeable flashlight that attaches to the window with a suction cup.
A fifth product—Business in a Box—is designed for individual salesmen in developing countries, with 144 N200 solar light bulbs and everything a vendor needs to start selling. Donors can buy them like microloans ($999 per box) for enterprising people who can buy more inventory with proceeds from their first sales.
Nokero has already partnered with Project C.U.R.E., which includes one bulb in each of its home health care kits for young families in developing countries, and Katsaros would like to get bulbs into the hands of every Peace Corps volunteer who leaves the country.
As keynote speaker at this year’s Bard Center competition, Katsaros told the audience what he has learned during the past year.
“Move forward as fast as you can; don’t wait until you have it all planned out.”
Contact Nokero at (800) 991-1950, www.nokero.com.