KC Entrepreneur's Solar Innovation Powers Cellphones in Places with Scarce Electricity
Liberty, Missouri | Innovation-Led
Almost 70 percent of people in Haiti own cell phones, yet only 12 percent have access to electricity.
That causes a problem, for example, when you want to charge a dying cell phone battery—especially if you rely on that phone not just for communication, but also for weather reports, accessing your money and other basic necessities.
Conner Hazelrigg heard this lop-sided statistic from a friend who’d recently returned from a trip to Haiti. At the time, Conner was a math and physics undergraduate at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, completing an internship at Sunshine Electric Display in St. Joseph. One glance at the engineering projects in her hands and the statistics from Haiti and Conner knew she was situated in the middle of a potential solution.
Electricity isn’t free in Haiti.
“In Haiti, people can’t just walk into a Panera and plug their phone into a wall,” notes Conner. “They have to buy electricity—at about 60 cents per half hour—at charging stations. And those stations are difficult to find, sometimes as far as two hours apart from one another.”
And so most people in Haiti charge their phones off of car batteries.
“That’s not safe or reliable,” Conner adds. “Working in an electronic manufacturing company, I knew we could find a way to provide a safe, reliable, sustainable and independent infrastructure for mobile phone charging,” she says.
Working with her advisor in William Jewell’s physics department, she drafted a design. The president of Sunshine Electric Display agreed to supply the materials for the first prototype. And after a year of testing, and with the help of Landon Young, director of Creativity and Innovation at William Jewell College, and a grant from the Kauffman Foundation, Conner was on a plane to Haiti to test her invention in the field. That was the summer of 2014.
“I had no intention of creating a business,” Conner says. “Going to Haiti opened my eyes to a bigger opportunity: I could touch more lives, I could make meaningful change.”
More about Connor's invention below ...
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She calls it the Sunshine Box.
Imagine a briefcase-sized solar box, standing about six inches tall, equipped with 10 12-volt sockets. UL-certified and waterproof, the Sunshine Box allows its users to plug in and safely charge up to 10 devices. The 20 watt solar panel on the top of the “briefcase” charges the internal battery, creating a self-sustaining power supply. The box is also rigged with a light and a fan, another benefit for its users. And yet another perk: it’s portable.
Once Conner landed in Haiti and saw the Sunshine Box in use, she knew she didn’t just have an invention, she had a business—and one that could help others pave a path to entrepreneurship.
Back in the states, she started pulling together resources to turn the Sunshine Box into a venture: she found a business partner in fellow William Jewell College student James Milam and solidified her manufacturing partnership with Sunshine Electric Display.
By the top of 2015, she was ready to reach out to KCSourceLink Resource Partners to help her build a viable business plan and explore market potential.
Conner makes the move from accidental to intentional entrepreneur.
Her first introduction: Whiteboard2Boardroom (W2B).
In February of 2015, Conner met Jim Baxendale, director of W2B. Jim answered her questions about intellectual property and for-profit versus nonprofit business models. He also performed an initial patent search, pointed her to information on solar power initiatives in Africa and Haiti, helped her clarify the key features and benefits of her technology and identified strategic partners and possible markets beyond Haiti.
The next three months were a blur of business planning—and business competitions. Conner and her team entered the Regnier Venture Creation Challenge and took third place. They took second place in the Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards.
“That experience was amazing,” she says. “It was a huge learning experience and a great opportunity to understand the business community and make connections.”
By May of 2015, they had a viable business, which Conner recently renamed 17° 73°, the coordinates of Port au Prince, Haiti and the beginning of her mission.
And this was all before she received her undergraduate degree: Conner graduated from William Jewell just this past December.
The sun shines on 17° 73°.
Today, 17° 73° has deployed Sunshine Boxes in the Bahamas, Haiti, Honduras, Malawi, Papua New Guinea, Peru, and Uganda—and the future looks bright.
Conner wants, and is ready, to change the world, to have the biggest impact she can. But she understands that to do that, she needs to meet people where they are with solutions that can help them overcome their challenges.
“As innovators, we need to help people find their solutions, answers that fit where they are and what they need in their society” she says. “My biggest goal for this business it to help and touch as many lives as possible in the world.”
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