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Lighting the Way

Incubated in a Stanford University class, MightyLight is a simple, safe and affordable device that is lighting up homes in India and the world.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every time people in India’s villages and towns flipped a switch, rooms would be flooded in lovely, clear light? This is a goal that Amit Chugh has worked toward for many years. “We need more sustainable and faster solutions that will enable even the most economically deprived person to have at least a single source of light at home and as soon as possible,” he says.

It was this idea of wanting to light up the poorest of homes with a simple, safe and affordable lighting source that made Chugh join hands with Matthew Scott of Stanford University, California to set up Cosmos Ignite Innovations, a venture devoted to designing, manufacturing and marketing solar light emitting diode (LED) lights.

The idea was incubated during Stanford’s course called Social Entrepreneurship Start-up. The course is now called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.

The first class of the course focused on affordable lighting. In poor, rural settings, lighting usually comes from kerosene lanterns, which are expensive to operate and cause health problems, especially for children. The students developed a functional prototype of a solar-rechargeable LED light.

After the class was over, four students, including Scott, decided to carry on the work. “Together, they formed Ignite Innovations, and began to pursue large-scale production of their invention: the MightyLight. They decided to begin in India, and they transitioned their operational activities to New Delhi,” says the Stanford Institute of Design Web site.

Ignite Innovations worked jointly with Cosmos Energy on the ground in India to build this idea into a product and accompanying business model to found Cosmos Ignite Innovations in 2004, adds Chugh.

MightyLight works on LED technology in conjunction with solar energy. It is a multifunctional lamp that can be used to light rooms or study areas, carried around as a flashlight, charge cell phones, radios, MP3 players or even a small water purifier. Specially designed for use in tough conditions, it is water and break resistant, and helps eliminate the use of the kerosene lamps that lakhs of people in India have traditionally used. “It is distributed in and in use by hundreds of thousands across India, Africa and Latin America...,” says Chugh.

“This idea to bring light to those who live in darkness was always at the back of my mind. As a child, I remember traveling with my dad in remote tribal regions of Andhra Pradesh.... I remember that for miles around there was no bulb. The villagers used only kerosene lamps,” Chugh reminisces. That’s the reason why, after many years in a corporate career around the world, he returned to India to follow his passion for founding a renewable energy venture with a triple bottom-line business model: delivering social impact, environmental benefits and sustainable economic returns.

The cofounders brought different skill sets and cultural backgrounds which, Chugh says, contributed to making it an effective start-up. As CEO, Chugh has an MBA with an economics degree and experience in renewable energy and consumer marketing, while Scott is an MBA and physics graduate.

While an affordable, ecofriendly lamp sounds like a great idea, convincing people to adopt an innovation isn’t always easy. Chugh agrees, but his take on the issue is different. “Our attempt was to first learn what...the market truly needed. We believe in making what our customers need rather than selling what [we] make. We didn’t believe in ‘burning’ thousands of investment dollars and that’s why we tested prototypes with constant feedback from users to get it right. Our customers taught [us] what to do,” he says.

The marketing strategy to promote what now includes a range of products had them partnering with global NGOs, governments and commercial organizations to help educate people on the benefits of using solar energy and long lasting LED lighting to replace kerosene lamps. “Today we are also partnering with financing institutions to help provide affordable loans to our users. This is hugely important especially if we want people to understand the importance of natural energy and to scale up rapidly. Continuous innovation over the years now enables the light to be sold at one-third its original price,” says Chugh. Orders for MightyLight can be placed on the Cosmos Ignite Innovations Web site, (http://www.cosmosignite.com/), where the listed price for the lamp is Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 1,000 for the solar panel.

For a business with an investment of less than $1 million that set its mind on achieving sustainability, “helping the poor,” “charity” or “social good” aren’t the kind of words used lightly in the Cosmos office. “Something that can benefit the poor as well as help the planet can be a great business idea, too,” says Chugh. “But we aren’t in this just to make profits and as a mark of our commitment we’ve capped our profit at only 10 percent. We call it the middle path.”


Paromita Pain is a journalist in Austin, Texas.