Billions of people in the developing world still lack access to two basic needs: clean water and electricity.
A startup founded in Italy — a MassChallenge winner from last night and former Techstars Boston participant — has created self-sustaining technology that could provide a solution for both needs: The startup’s proprietary technology generates enough energy to provide clean water and electricity to a small village.
And it all fits inside a 6 x 6 x 6-foot shipping container.
It’s called Off Grid Box. There’s a 3.2kWp solar panel system on the top of the box, with an inverter that converts the captured sunlight into usable energy. The box stores water (which can be collected via rainwater, a well, a nearby stream, ocean or an external tank) and houses a water treatment system powered by solar energy. Excess energy is stored in a battery pack that can be used to power a local commercial grid, homes, businesses or smaller battery packs.
Each box can provide up to 230 families with 27 liters of clean drinking water per day, as well as enough energy to power two lights and two mobile phones. Each box is expected to last at least 15 years.
“A village in Rwanda could never afford a box like that.”
The idea to combine these solutions into a single box, came from a project that co-founders Emiliano Cecchini and Davide Bonsignore (collaborators on cleantech projects for over a decade) were working on in South Africa. The goal was to equip six OXFAM kindergarten classes with solar power, hot water, rainwater capture, and water purification, but the process of installing various components would take weeks, Cecchini said. By pre-assembling the components in a standalone box, they found that they were able to cut the installation time down to three hours.
The duo launched Off Grid Box with a direct sales model in 2014, selling one-off boxes to NGOs and people living off the grid. They installed 28 boxes across Italy, South Africa, Rwanda, Nigeria, Philippines, Madagascar, the U.S. and Colombia over the next two years.
While the sustainable technology was working, finding a sustainable business model proved a bit more difficult. Selling individual boxes wasn’t particularly profitable or scalable, and the cost — $25,000 to $35,000 — put the box out of reach of many vulnerable communities.
“A village in Rwanda could never afford a box like that,” said Bas Berends, Off Grid Box’s VP for EU Partnerships said, speaking at the Hello Tomorrow conference in Paris where the startup was a finalist in the energy category.
This summer while working in Techstars Boston, OffGridBox pivoted to a pay-as-you-go model. Investors pay $25,000 up front to get the box on the ground, users pay 12 cents per day for clean water and charging battery packs (after a $5 initial payment for a battery pack kit), and investors and Off Grid Box share the revenue. Off Grid Box also employs local women, sourced via local NGOs, to monitor and maintain the equipment.
The startup ran a pilot of the new model in Rwanda this spring, and they’re now in the process of installing 18 boxes in the country, financed by impact investors and friends and family. Their goal is to install 1,000 by 2020 and move into additional markets, such as Colombia, Ghana and the Philippines.
Off Grid Box also has the potential to for disaster relief. When Hurrican Maria hit Puerto Rico and emergency relief stalled, US-based organization ConPRmetidos raised money to purchase a box for the island. One is already installed and they’re in talks to get additional boxes on the ground.
Cecchini also said they’re working on improving the efficiency of the boxes to bring down the cost, which may provide the path to profitable direct sales in the future. For now, he’s most excited about improving the research and development of additional modules that can customize the box to fit various needs, including a desalinator for coastal communities, remote monitoring sensors, and sophisticated algorithms that can improve the efficiency of the box.
“That would be the sustainable competitive advantage in the long term, to be able to integrate machine learning and artificial intelligence in the optimization of the Off Grid Box,” Cecchini said.
(Images provided via Off Grid Box)