I never go on camping trips without a BioLite CampStove.
The stove converts the heat from a fire into electricity using a thermoelectric generator so I can charge up my phone or tablet. It's ingenious. The stove has a built-in fan powered by the heat, which in turn helps fan the flame so I only have to insert a few twigs to keep a fire going. An internal heat probe captures the waste heat and powers a USB plug.
Recently, the company announced a new version called the CookStove that uses a fresh design. (I've been testing it for a few weeks, mostly during some ice fishing trips.) The battery is not charged by a generator, which cuts down on the costs.
Because I like the new product so much, I decided to track down co-founder Jonathan Cedar and ask about how the companies stays so innovative.
How did your first product came about?
It was 2006 and my co-founder Alec and I just wanted to make a camping stove that didn't burn gas and rely on fossil fuel. We loved camping (still do) but bringing a bunch of gas canisters felt like such a disconnect from the whole point of being outdoors.
We were working at Smart Design in New York City as product designers and with our engineering backgrounds we figured there had to be a way to better harness one of the world's most ubiquitous resources: wood. We basically said, 'How do you use wood as a modern fuel?' The whole idea is to jettison the fuel supply chain. It was a nights and weekends project for a while, but in 2009 I left my job to pursue the business full time, largely in part due to the bifurcation of our business model: In 2009 we went to the ETHOS combustion conference and quickly realized our technology had the potential to impact millions of lives in emerging markets where families are still cooking over smoky indoor fires.
How did you refine your vision?
The CampStove that hit the market came from six years of refinement. The technology features a patented design that uses a thermoelectric generator to convert heat from the fire into usable electricity. That powers an internal fan that blows air back into the burn chamber, dramatically improving combustion, giving you a smokeless wood fire on par with a white gas stove. The self-sustaining system was our primary goal, but several prototypes in we realized that we were creating enough of a power output to share some of that energy via a USB port, enabling users to charge phones, LED lights and other small devices.
This year, in 2016, we're actually launching a streamlined version of the CampStove (named the CookStove), that features a USB rechargeable powerpack instead of our flagship thermoelectric generator. We saw lots of customers interested in clean wood cooking, but were already carrying off-grid power in their kit, so we decided to make a version of the stove that delivers the same revolutionary combustion, but at a lower price-point. That powerpack can provide up to 30 hours of clean cooking (e.g., that's the battery life of the internal fan on a single charge) and still gives you a great portable campfire feel, something gas canisters can never do.
How do you stay innovative?
BioLite is a mission-driven business and that is one of the biggest drivers in staying innovative. We design for real-word problems for some of the poorest households in the world so we are constantly faced with developing technologies that are intuitive, durable, affordable, and actually solve problems that have not been solved time and time again. Our design and engineering team work on both sides of the business (Outdoor Recreation and Emerging Markets) and observations from both fields end up informing all the work we do. Here's a great example:
Anton, our Director of Design, is in India doing research for our lighting line which launched in 2015). He visited a home where the family had poked a hole through the wall and placed a single fluorescent tube that could light two rooms at once. This desire for multi-room lighting stuck with Anton and led to the development of the SiteLight system in our NanoGrid line; it's a series of string lights that daisy-chain together, enabling you to light large spaces or turn corners to light multiple rooms at once. The NanoGrid is sold in both our outdoor and emerging markets.
Why is innovation so important to you?
Designing for real problems and starting from first principles is important for any startup because it roots you in 'essentiality' which is critical when time, resources, and bandwidth are all at an absolute premium. What is it your trying to solve for? Will your next decision contribute to that or distract from it? It keeps you focused and motivated while simultaneously cultivating collaboration among your teammates.