Friday, April 25, 2014

This Little Solar Powered Lantern Named 'Luci' Is Having A Big Impact

When you’re confronted by near-death experiences nine times before the age of 24, including being chased by a machete-toting gang and being held at gunpoint on three different occasions, you either go a little crazy or learn how to stay calm in high-pressure situations. Jacques-Philippe Piverger went with the latter and says these brushes with his own mortality help to explain why his entrepreneurial risk tolerance has always skewed high. Now 37, he and John Salzinger are cofounders of MPOWERD – the makers of the “Luci” solar powered inflatable lantern, a sleekly designed product that within its first 20 months is being sold by over 250 different retailers domestically, and has been shipped to 50 countries throughout the developing world. Last year the company generated $1.3 million in revenue, and this year they expect to multiply that by ten and cross over into profitability. There is a massive network of people making this possible, but I’m getting ahead of myself – lets back up and better understand how this company came to be.


I recently heard Piverger speak during Catalyst Week in Las Vegas, and was taken by his personal story, and how it links to his current venture. He was born in New York City to two Haitian parents that divorced when he was very young, resulting in a childhood split between living with his father in Miami, and spending summers with his mother in Haiti. His early and broad exposure to minority communities that were working through challenging social and economic issues, combined with getting a glimpse at a more privileged existence through driving over an hour to attend the best elementary and middle schools before landing back at a local public high school, put him in the position of outside observer. He didn’t identify with any one community, but instead was able to see the potential for positive transformation in the communities that needed help.

He chose to attend Georgetown University and, while at first surprised by the lack of ethnic diversity he was accustom to growing up with, his experience there ended up being a positive one, and upon graduating with a finance degree in 1999 he worked for two different investment banks before co-founding and running a strategic marketing company. By day his team helped clients like Motorola, Western Union, Morgan Stanley and Universal Music effectively communicate with their constituents. By night he was organizing large-scale events and promoting parties for the who’s who of New York City. Yes, he was kind of “that guy” – bouncing around Manhattan and living it up, experiencing success at a young age, and super connected to a bevy of influential people. But deep down he never lost his passion for social change, always keeping his hands in philanthropic ventures and political campaigns – a self-proclaimed wearer of many hats.

He helped organize several fundraising events for a little known Illinois Senator named Barak Obama in ’03 and then, while obtaining an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, he cofounded The Council of Urban Professionals – a leadership group that helps to develop diverse business and civic leaders, with a focus on empowering women and minority groups. Upon graduation in ’07 Piverger began working for AIG Asset Management, and found himself traveling back to Haiti for the first time in nine years – shocked to discover the extent of damage being caused by commodity price increases, and the general lack of planning and execution in place. He founded a nonprofit organization called Soleil Global in 2008 and began organizing a series of trips that were focused on bringing influential people to Haiti, and inspiring them to invest in the country’s recovery. Then the earthquake hit in 2010, and he invited longtime friend and former colleague John Salzinger to come with him on his next trip.
The two were completely overwhelmed by how dire the situation was, and began discussing ways to create a sustainable market-based solution to energy poverty that would bring light to those living off the grid in Haiti, and the rest of the developing world, where more than 1.5 billion people live without access to clean, bright, reliable light. They returned home and began gathering a team of progressive business minded individuals, including principal inventor Jason Snyder (also a cofounder). In 2012 they registered MPOWERD as a New York City-based Benefit Corporation, demonstrating their commitment to “do well by doing good” – measured by both financial performance and social impact. Soon after, they crossed paths with Scott Kling and realized quickly that between his vast consumer products experience and passion for solar energy solutions (he was previously a senior executive at Jarden and the CEO of SolarX), he would be a perfect fit at MPOWERD. Kling joined the team as COO, with Piverger holding the CEO title and Salzinger taking the lead on business development as the company’s EVP.

MPOWERD’s first product, personified by the name Luci, was launched in early 2013 and has managed to differentiated itself in the marketplace with its elegant design – a flat, inflatable, light-weight, maintenance-free and waterproof little dome of light – so hip looking that it’s not just having success in the developing world but has also become unexpectedly popular in the United States. Surprise target audiences include outdoor and camping enthusiasts, home décor aficionados, and survivalists – a growing population of people seeking emergency preparedness due to growing income inequality, political instability, and weather abnormalities caused by climate change. In response, MPOWERD will soon release a line of colored lanterns named “Luci Aura” that will shine mood-enhancing (solar) light on special occasions, holidays and seasons.

In the United States the suggested retail price is $14.99, with international distributors purchasing their lanterns wholesale and setting prices at whatever level their market can handle. But to ensure they reach those who can’t afford to purchase their lanterns, MPOWERD has established a Solar Justice initiative called Give Luci, where customers are encouraged to purchase Luci lights at a discounted rate and choose an NGO partner to distribute the light(s) to communities in need. In the last few months alone they’ve been able to provide 500 lanterns to families that were effected by storms in the Philippines, 500 to women-led households in Sub-Saharan Africa, 500 to communities in the Amazon, and 300 to girls living in refugee camps. And they know that’s just scratching the surface of what’s possible, motivating them to launch a 45-day campaign beginning April 15th that is aimed at eradicating energy poverty.

Each lantern includes 10 LEDs and takes approximately eight hours to charge, providing enough light to illuminate a 10-foot room for 6-12 hours depending on the setting (bright, super bright, flashing), and has a one-year warranty. The batteries are lithium ion polymer, and can be charged in both direct sunlight and incandescent light. The lanterns have a five-inch diameter, and are four inches in height when inflated, and one inch when collapsed, making for easy transport and compact product display. According to a recent report by GlobeScan, 98% of Haitians who received a Luci inflatable solar lantern reported that it replaced the need for kerosene‐based lighting in their homes, with 90% of families citing a decline in both breathing problems and eye irritation. Indeed, for each Luci purchased, 320kg of CO2 emissions will be kept out of the atmosphere annually – that’s good news, regardless of where the lights are being used.

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