LuminAID®: A Bright Idea with Global Social Impact
Published August 2016
Portable, inflatable, waterproof solar lights for disaster relief, outdoor adventures and camping
2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Grand Prize Winner
New York, NY
When graduate students Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork began studying architecture design at Columbia University, little did they know that a class project would one day change their lives. Shortly after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, the two students were charged with creating a product to assist disaster relief efforts there. Their “light bulb moment” was actually solar powered.
“When most people think of basic human needs, they think of food, clothing and shelter. We thought of lighting — specifically solar lighting,” Sreshta, co-founder of LuminAID® said. “Haiti didn’t have a stable electricity source before the earthquake. People there didn’t have easy access to batteries. So, we thought solar lighting would be a better, safer option to the kerosene and candles they were using.”
After a couple of days, working from a kitchen table, Stork and Sreshta developed an inflatable solar light that folded flat for shipping and storage. They prototyped it in less than three weeks by hand, and spent the rest of the semester refining the product.
“At different times throughout the semester, we presented the product for critiques to groups of professors, students and outside architects. The response we got was very positive,” said Stork, co-founder of LuminAID. “It was such a simple idea. We heard a lot of, ‘Why didn’t we think of that; it’s so clever.”
After realizing the product’s potential, they filed a utility patent. The following semester, Andrea and Anna conducted independent market research and entered business competitions, confirming the solution they created could transform into a successful long-term business. All they needed was money for a production run.
From Crowdfunding to Swimming with the Sharks
“We ran an Indiegogo campaign in fall of 2011, and raised 500 percent of our initial funding goal,” Anna said. That effort also shed light on another market opportunity. “When we started, we thought our market was NGOs — non-government relief organizations that do the heavy lifting when disaster strikes,” Anna said. “But, when we looked at how many individuals pre-purchased the product, we saw potential for the consumer channel as well. Campers, outdoor enthusiasts and people who just wanted to have an emergency light were all placing orders.”
The crowdfunding effort proved out another, vital part of LuminAID’s model: the charitable aspect. People responded to the "Get a Light, Give a Light" concept, through which each purchase triggered another light sent to someone in need.
The company took off from there. By 2014, LuminAID had two employees, $1 million in sales, and had distributed 10,000 donated lights to charitable projects in 50 countries. Andrea and Anna were ready for the next step.
“We were at the point where we wanted an investor and strategic partner; and the ‘sharks’ on (the TV show) Shark Tank all had good retail market experience,” Andrea said. “We thought there was no better way to raise funds and share the vision of our company with a mass of viewers than Shark Tank.“
LuminAID attracted the interest of all five sharks, eventually landing a deal with billionaire entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Seeing the Impact
Since that time, LuminAID has continued to grow, now with five full-time employees, and customers in 65 countries worldwide. In addition to its NGO, e-commerce and retail markets, LuminAID recently added a B2B channel, offering lanterns imprinted with corporate logos for giveaways or gifts.
Just as importantly, Andrea and Anna finally got the opportunity to see the impact of their lights firsthand. “As part of a Shark Tank follow-up, we went to the Republic of Malawi with ShelterBox, an international disaster relief organization that provides pre-packaged boxes of support to victims of natural disasters. We had produced 5,000 lights for them to distribute to the flood victims there,” Anna said. “The trip was so meaningful. Watching how people used the lights made us realize how lifesaving they really were. It impressed us to see how people took care of the lights — folding them neatly, putting them out at the same time every morning. Our product was making a difference.”
Winning a FedEx Small Business Grant
LuminAID already used FedEx for its international shipments when the company entered the 2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, and the founders were thrilled to win a $15,000 grant. “We’re going to use the grant to expand our team,” Andrea said. “We recently hired someone to help with retail. With the FedEx grant, we can add a new position to focus on e-commerce and the NGO channels, and ultimately, grow our business.”
Although, on the surface, the company seems like an overnight success, don’t think for a minute that Andrea and Anna didn’t experience the inevitable rollercoaster ride that defines almost every small business. “When you run a small business, you’ll have ups and downs. Each day, you’ll have a failure — and that failure will be balanced by a success the next day — or the next hour,” Andrea said.
Their advice? “Just put one foot in front of the other. Yes, you have a long-term plan, but you execute that plan one step at a time.” Enlightening thoughts from two entrepreneurs whose brilliant idea is making a difference in the lives of so many.