News Article | October 13, 2015
How did you get to your position? What was the route that you took? I’d like to say that my career did not follow a traditional route. In school, I studied more how different cultures create objects and processes to really reproduce their everyday life, so I’ve always been fascinated with everyday objects—housewares, things like decorative accessories. My first job out of school was with Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters, and I really loved it. That led to Smart Design in New York, and then later in San Francisco. At Smart Design, my journey was really about bridging the insights we’d gained about people’s everyday experiences with the growing significance that technology was playing in their lives. I spent more than 10 years at Smart, and worked for a lot of different clients in different industries, and gained a good breadth of experience. And then I left Smart to do a short stint with Philips working in helping them figure out how to leverage design and innovation in their effort to create new ventures. It was a great learning experience. Then I moved to Frog Design to lead the global AT&T account. It was a pretty unusual time when we were helping AT&T transform from a traditional telecom to more of a software company that was trying to fuel their growth with services across a broader ecosystem. And then later, with Frog, I moved back to Amsterdam, where I essentially repeated that type of approach with several other companies—how to build on the value and expertise that a company has when it’s built its reputation more in the era of things and products, and help them create a significant place in the world of connected things, like services. Then Philips approached me to help them with a similar challenge. And here I am at Philips, a company in transformation. In February, I was given an opportunity to lead design for our health care and schematics business as well as the personal health solutions business. And the point of all this was to specifically bridge the worlds of our clinical expertise and our consumer expertise through software experiences that would create more consistent and meaningful user experiences across that health continuum. You’ve gone back and forth between working in a large company and working with agencies. Where do you see the differences there? I think the differences are pretty dramatic. In the agency world, you get the advantage of being able to experience a lot of different industries and a lot of different challenges or problems in those industries. You can pick or spot the patterns that repeat, and you can really start to see how to apply the thinking in different industries and help people soak up the learning from different ways of working. The challenge is, within consultancy, you can’t really take it all the way through. On the corporate side, you have to be really good at understanding the strategy and how to build a vision that people can get excited about and want to sponsor. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned? There have been so many. One of the biggest themes is around alignment and creating a common language. I don’t think people in these programs generally spend enough time making sure that they’re saying the same thing. We have so much confusing language. And I have to say, design has been guilty of that a lot over the years—of creating specialized language to talk about what design does, reinventing words in order to explain things. And that’s not really doing us a lot of good. More often than not, we don’t spend enough time coming to common words to mean the same thing, and aligning on expectations. Did you ever have a mentor or female role model? I’ve had a series of them. When I was at Frog originally, and I’m not sure if it’s still the same today, but I was really inspired by the level of women leaders in the organization, and the way that everybody had their own distinct approach to communication and leading and decision-making. And what I love about it is that it is a bit of a sisterhood, in a way, of people that can actually rely on one another and talk to one another about things. With a mentor, it’s a safe place to ask questions, like, "Does that ever happen to you, and how’d you deal with it?" Today I spend a lot of time trying to mentor the younger women. You have the unique experience of working both in Europe and in the U.S. Are the sensibilities about design different? I don’t think so. I think that’s one of the outcomes of globalization. I miss some of the regionalism that existed before globalization. What do you think are some of the biggest trends in design now? For example, I feel like leaders are putting design into organizations just to check a box. But are designers being used effectively to drive real change? I think that’s a fantastic trend, and I can look at Philips and say I was amazed that design sits on the management teams at each of the businesses. It’s more than a checkbox, which is one of the things I was so happy about when I got there, and one of the reasons I took the job. But at the same time, we’re not yet at the place where the organization knows 100% how to work with design. And I’m not talking just about Philips; I’m talking in general. It’s so fanatically popular right now, the idea of design, and design thinking and having chief design officers. I think there’s still a lack of understanding and maturity around what it means to be able to effectively leverage it. So design’s still brought in too late, very often, still only a tenth of the design capabilities are actually being utilized, in some cases. So it’s very popular. But I am not sure it’s yet as effective as it could be. Do you think sometimes design clashes with business goals? I’ve never seen outright conflict except when we have poor alignment in planning. Very often, people say, "Well, I need some of that," but they don’t know what to do with it. And it’s the same thing that’s said when companies go through that transformation of being more old-school technology companies to software companies. They don’t necessarily know how to incorporate software development into their processes. Just as an example, in software, design needs to be a critical part of the requirement development process. If I get handed a list of requirements and am told to just start designing that, and please don’t question these requirements, because we know these are the right things to go build, I know that we’re headed for a problem. So that’s where conflicts are going to come up, because I know for the next several months I’m going to be questioning requirements, and wondering, Well, what problem is this actually solving? Part of your job is leadership. You’ve got to present ideas that are different, ideas that the organization hasn’t done. And as much as people say they like change, people are horribly resistant to change. What are some of the techniques that you use? One is: You’ve got to know who’s in the room, and what they need. Where are they going to see risk in the idea? So you need to start to really map: Who are you talking to? What’s going to make it a win for them to say yes to the idea, and what are they scared of? And how do you address that fear? So that’s a simple exercise if you know who your stakeholders are. And I think there are some people who talk about not just user-centered design but stakeholder-centered design as well, and really taking those extra steps in the process to understand what it’s going to take for this idea to be successful within this organization. Because there’s crazy ideas, but they’re crazy ideas that have to work and land in that organization, not just somewhere out in the world. So it’s got to be personal for that business. I think it’s about storytelling, too. And I think that’s something we talk about a lot today, but I think that the art of that is to understand how to make the story real enough, but not so real that the people in the room don’t feel like they can come help add to that story. So coming in with a fully finished, highly polished story that doesn’t leave anybody room to contribute to the narrative is often a mistake. I think keeping the fidelity of the story a little bit lower, and showing them where, " . . . and here’s the part where you can help in making this story real." Help people start to feel invested and feel like they want to champion that, and help make it real. Designers are often mission-driven. They want to change the world, and they’re gung-ho. Do they ever run into walls and hold onto their beliefs so much that they can’t see the forest for the trees? How do you work with that? What are some skills there that you could use to open up people? I think that’s a really great question, because I see it in people’s eyes so often. You start down a process where the scope of the project is to make the world a better place in some way or another. At Philips, we are lucky enough that there are a lot of those kinds of projects—I mean, our mission statement is to improve the lives of three billion people. So with that as a mission statement, it’s a natural fit for designers to come and say I want to help do that. It doesn’t mean that every project in its entirety is going to change the world, and there are a lot of things that we start that have to change sometimes midway through because of one business reality or another, or you find out that there were potentially two different efforts that were kind of doing similar things, and now we need to combine those and make it something that can get to market in a more reasonable way. So the world is filled with the need to compromise on different things, and you have to really be clear with the designers. What are the couple absolute, definite things we’re going to hang onto here, and kind of go down with the ship trying, if we can’t get it in? And make sure that you’ve got the business to really understand that and share that vision also. Because it can’t just be this fight of design hitting the brick wall and fighting for something that the business doesn’t believe in or want, because you’re just pushing boulders uphill, and that doesn’t make anyone feel good. But what I also think is, with designers, in the beginning of the program, really lay out for them what the risks and challenges and opportunities are, and be as transparent as absolutely possible, because if they’re left in a bubble to think that everything’s possible all the time, then you’re not doing them a favor. They can’t really help you solve the problem and shift with the changing needs of the program. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes, when you see that somebody might look at an effort and say, "Aw. It’s not nearly as good as I’d hoped it would be. It feels like too many compromises." But you have to encourage and help them to see the long view, that this one solution isn’t the end of the story. As a company—any company today that’s working in this kind of space—it’s the beginning of the story, and you’re going to build this over time, and you’ve got to show them how to make the effort what they believe it should be over time, and keep people’s spirits up and see how they can contribute to that. What have you learned from leading all these creative people? What are some of the things that have made an impact on you? I think it’s being really, really, super clear, being gentle. I think sometimes I’m very direct. I’m a pretty direct communicator, so making sure that I’m being direct and gentle in equal doses. And listening probably three times longer than I think I need to. So pausing a lot before I jump in and offer an opinion—really, really leading it out of people, and getting them to really tell me more and more about what it is they’re thinking and what they feel the solution could be, or what the problems really are that they’re trying to grapple with. Also being really decisive and clear when you need to make a decision. So if there is still room to explore, encourage it with gusto, but if there really isn’t, then be clear and focus the team so that they feel that their contributions are actually going to matter and that they’re not spinning their wheels. Do you think being a woman makes your job harder, easier, or does it really matter? Until recently, I haven’t really identified with being a woman in business. I just thought, Well, this is who I am, and I work in complex organizations, and doesn’t that make it complicated for everybody? So I haven’t really overidentified with the part of my journey that’s related to being a woman, but I do see that I’ve always worked in businesses and in roles where I’m one of one or two women in the room. That’s really not that unusual. And in some ways, it’s been great, because I find it makes it easier to be heard in a way, because you really are different than everybody else in the room. You can offer different perspectives. And in other ways, it’s been a little bit of a challenge. I think a lot of times in business that what I consider to be more male traits are valued over what are considered to be more female traits. And I don’t mean to stereotype them, but I think the KPIs that the organizations use to judge people’s success, they need to evolve with a more progressive sense of leadership. I have a lot of women who come to me and say things like, "Well, I’ve been told in my review that I need to show more visible leadership." What does that mean? What’s the code for that? And how does that affect people who maybe are more interested in the whole team being successful than highlighting individual success? Or for people who are more introverted than extroverted? So I don’t see these issues as just being women’s issues; I see them being just people who have leadership styles that are not that classic more extroverted, more expressive type of leader. Approaches that seem to work, but are not really yet valued in business, or are still thought about as "soft skills"—empathy, emotional intelligence—how much do you use those? And is that accepted in the business world? I use those skills every day. I think that it’s made me more approachable to the teams that I work with, and I think that that’s been a really good thing. So I know I get a lot of really positive feedback that the people who work with me, report to me, are part of the organizations that I’m helping lead, they often say, "We feel that you’re more accessible; we feel we can talk to you about things." So that’s clearly resonating with people, and I think that that is more of a female approach, just being open to listening to things, even if it isn’t necessary on a critical path to some problem I’m trying to solve currently. Being open to that conversation and that dialogue about the situations around our work, not just the work itself, I don’t think that that’s the part of the job that I’m getting evaluated on, though. I think it has a lot of good intangible value, but I don’t yet see that in the way we evaluate our leaders. The positive thing is when we see people having KPIs associated with talent retention. So there are other aspects to it that you can say, "Okay, that work that I do, that’s maybe more about emotionally engaging with people and having empathy for the way people are working," that probably comes out in having people want to stay in the group longer and develop through the ranks of the group. Do you feel like you use those emotions then? Do you think that the KPIs over time will change? I think it’s going to take a long time, because it’s the perennial question of, "How do you measure the value of design?" It’s also, "How do you measure the value of soft skills?" And I think that business is hard-wired to want to have things they can measure. They embrace things that can be measured. I think if we can start figuring out how to measure the value of the soft skills, I think it’s going to be easier for business to make sure that it’s embraced. But also, always having to find a measurement for everything when it seems as plain as the nose on your face that it matters can be a conversation that doesn’t really go anywhere. That’s also why I like the qualitative research and quantitative research, because you can start to correlate on things, and give people at least a stronger sense of confidence that something works. But that’s another topic. Sometimes people need proof that something like this works. You can’t just say it, even though it feels good and you know instinctively that it works. But they also need belief. And if we had stronger anecdotes about why it works, we could build more belief. Because I think sometimes it goes back to the storytelling and the anecdotes and being able to create a sense of what the truth is for people: "Well, look. I lived it. I felt it. I saw this happen." And you have people supporting that opinion, and it starts to become the truth for people. They start to just believe it. And I don’t mean that you’re pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes; it’s just that you have to really make the story accessible to them so they understand it. If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? There’s a woman who started a business years ago out of Santa Cruz where she works with local organic farmers and producers of amazing food, and she puts on these 300-person dinners with these mile-long tables that you can sit at. I wish I’d had that idea. I guess I love entertaining, and I’ve always thought that I’d love to create a business that brought together people and food and discussion and entertainment—sort of the TED of dinner parties. I know you love to cook. Is that your creative outlet? Oh my God, yes. And my creative masterpiece is my new kitchen. I have just created a kitchen that dwarfs the rest of my house. I know we can’t hug in the workplace, but are you a hugger? We don’t hug in the workplace in the Netherlands because Dutch people don’t typically hug. But we kiss in the workplace once a year, and that’s the first day that everybody comes back to work from the Christmas and New Year’s break. There’s always a little coffee corner where people get together and greet each other in the new year, and everybody runs around kissing everybody on the cheeks three times. And of course the following week, a lot of people come back to work with colds and the flu, but that’s what they like to do.
News Article | January 30, 2015
A new concept app from the London office of design and innovation consultancy Smart Design aims to improve the health of a large portion of the world's population, a segment for whom weight loss can be a matter of life and death: diabetics. Nudge is a concept app aimed at pre-diabetics—people with a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes—to change their eating habits. Described as a "personal nutritionist disguised as a shopping assistant," the app keeps track of a user's weekly grocery shopping using a phone's camera to scan products on store shelves. The app looks for purchasing patterns that can be improved, and suggests healthy alternatives—like substituting red rice for white rice, or maybe even quinoa—to nudge the individual toward making better decisions. The idea is to help pre-diabetics make small, incremental changes. The app also provides recipe ideas—this is important, because one type of phthalate found in food packaging has links to insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. In addition, the app adds up the price of your shopping for you, and keeps tabs on the eating habits of your whole family. It is thought that many children children between the ages of 4 and 10 are consuming more sugar in their diets than is healthy for them. With over 8% of the world's adult population—that's around 350 million people—affected by the disease, diabetes is ranked by the World Health Organization as one of the top four non-communicable diseases. Along with cardiovascular disease, cancer, and chronic lung disease, the condition was responsible for 68 million deaths in 2012. By 2025, it is expected that over half a billion people will have contracted the disease due to poor lifestyle choices. Nudge is the result of a personal crusade by Sean O'Connor, partner and senior design lead in Smart Design's London bureau, after he lost his father to diabetes. "I had seen firsthand how difficult it was for him to make necessary behavioral changes to his daily routine after a lifetime of poor diet and fitness choices." The team began by mapping the entire patient journey for someone living with diabetes, before it decided to focus on those diagnosed with pre-diabetes to help them choose a healthier lifestyle. "After all, we are what we eat, and we eat what we buy, so better choices at retail can actually help keep people from developing the disease," says O'Connor. Many developers have your dietary habits in their sights, from the stick-like Carrot to the more futuristic flavor pill concept dreamed up by Koz Susani Design. In 2012, a health care firm brought out a glucometer, which measures blood sugar levels via an add-on gadget that connects to a user's iPhone. And a health startup in California has developed the Breeze breathalyzer that analyses the 300 biomarkers present in human breath in order to detect diseases including diabetes—a similar concept to Google's smart contact lens, in development at its experimental department Google X.
News Article | February 13, 2014
It’s no secret that so-called smart TVs rarely live up to their name. Most sets basically just give you regular old TV and shoehorn in YouTube and Netflix as an afterthought. There’s room for improvement with those streaming services, too. Netflix, based on its beginnings as a Blockbuster competitor, still forces viewers to pick a single title out of thousands every time they fire it up. It’s daunting. Clearly, TV is in need of some fresh thinking–especially in terms of UI. The folks at Smart Design agree. The firm, best known for giving birth to the beloved kitchenware brand OXO, recently cooked up a concept for the Smart TV of their dreams, combining the breadth of streaming video with the simplicity of regular old TV. The concept, dubbed VEO TV, is built around a simple idea we explored just last week: old-school, linear channels are a great way to watch TV. Where things get smart is in how those channels are programmed. Instead of relying on broadcasters to pick what’s on, VEO curates content from myriad sources based on who’s watching, using face recognition to sense who’s in the room and adjusting what it’s serving up accordingly. When a second person plunks down on the couch, their profiles are automatically cross-referenced to populate a channel with things they might both be interested in. Where things get smart is in how those channels are programmed. Smart Design thinks there’s a sweet spot at around 8 channels, combining some of the idle agency of channel surfing with the under-the-hood personalization you get with, say, the Netflix recommendation engine. VEO’s channels are time-aware, so you’re likely to get the news in the morning, say, and a popcorn action movie after dark. The system could sprinkle random content in throughout, leaving room for the serendipitous discovery that you get with TV today. VEO is designed to be operated with a smartphone, not out of a desire for a more sophisticated set of controls so much as a way to reduce the amount of menus needed on the big screen. In other words, it’s designs so that your TV will look and feel like a TV–not a computer. The solution was based on months of research into how people were watching TV today. The one big takeaway from talking to viewers, according to Heather Martin, Smart Design’s Director of Interaction? “There’s so much content pushed at people, but it’s being pushed in the wrong way.” According to Nate Giraitis, Associate Director of Insights and Strategy, it comes down to “where the onus of the decision lies.” With old school channels, you just sit back and watch. With on-demand video, you’re left to make all those choices. The result? All too often, viewers are paralyzed by the surfeit of options they’re presented with. We press the “power” button, and instead of getting entertainment, we’re faced with a responsibility. As Martin sees it, that’s a departure from the TV experience we’ve always known. “The idea that you have to give people huge amounts of choice is the antithesis of TV watching,” she explains. “Linear TV is experiential from the moment you turn it on.” Pushing the responsibility of curation to viewers introduces another problem: On Netflix, everyone’s aspirational. During their research, Smart Design found that people don’t fill their queues with b-movies and cable junk. Instead, they flag foreign movies and documentaries and all the other brainy content they think they should be consuming. Giving the viewer the responsibility of picking their content creates a schism between what people want to watch and what they want to want to watch. It leaves no room for that tentpole TV use-case: vegging out in front of some mindless, guilty pleasure. In sum, VEO offers a compelling vision for what a truly smart Smart TV should be, bringing together the diverse content and algorithmic recommendations of today’s streaming video services with the idiot-proof ease of channels and curated, linear programming. The more you look at today’s robust streaming services and supercharged, app-ified interfaces, Giraitis says, the less they seem like the right way forward. “You realize there are so many elements of the old school TV experience that were just right.”
News Article | June 12, 2014
See it sway: three-eyed blind bat hanging from a wire. Or perhaps there: perched atop a pole, lights moving from top to bottom–green yellow red green yellow red–in its unvarying sequence. Two hundred years ago, it would have been a wonder, something on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, gawked at by Victorians. Today it’s seen but unconsidered, passed under a dozen times a day by most of us, influencing how we move, shaping our cities, warping how we travel, and occasionally, inadvertently, helping to kill us. Consider the traffic light. Is there anything lonelier than a solitary traffic light blinking to an empty road? It’s an establishing shot that screams: desolation. It plays on our fear that the mechanical world doesn’t care about us, and will exist long after we’re gone. The traffic light doesn’t need people. And yet. Here’s the thing: traffic lights don’t really do anything. They don’t–can’t–physically stop you. They don’t engage a barrier to prevent cars from going through the intersection, and lower that barrier when it’s time to drive. They won’t stop you from plowing into a hapless pedestrian at the intersection. No, they’re only a mechanical prop, a signifier of a social contract we’ve agreed to (and have written into law). They are a means of behavior change, and we (mostly) obey. It is hard to think of a technology so widely adopted, so ubiquitous, so influential, and, yes, so well designed. Traffic lights are used by billions daily, even by the illiterate and unschooled. The lights are designed to be seen even in broad daylight, sometimes by using cap visors or, more recently, bright LEDs to make them visible. They can be aimed on many lanes of traffic or just one, with special Fresnel lenses like those used in lighthouses to focus the light on an intended viewing area and obscure it from other lanes of traffic. The traffic light has evolved from dumb electro-mechanical objects to smarter, networked ones, able to adapt to the environment in sophisticated ways. Originally, there were no traffic lights. For almost forty years we drove cars without them—not to mention the several millennia we rode horses sans lights, or any intersection control at all. When the street light was invented by Lester Wire in Salt Lake City in 1912, they had no yellow lights, only green and red, with a buzzer to let drivers know the light was about to change. It didn’t take long to realize that this probably wasn’t the best solution, and thus the yellow light was born. Red, at least in the West, has been the color of danger since at least the Romans. Green as “go” came from railroad signals, color-blind people be damned. But yellow is the easiest color to see. It’s the first color your eye can detect, because physics: more light is reflected from bright colors and thus with yellow, eyes become more stimulated. The yellow light is by far the most sophisticated and cognitively challenging part of any traffic light. Red and green lights have had to consider timing, namely: how long should one side of the intersection remain green, the other red. This creates the “capacity” of a signal: how many vehicles can move through on a single change of the light. This, in turn, creates (or disrupts) flow throughout the entire traffic grid of a city. Longer green lights mean more vehicles move through the intersection. If one light is letting too many cars through, the next light might have traffic jams as cars pile up. This is how traffic can be (partially) controlled: by adjusting the capacity of traffic lights, letting more or less traffic pass through. Sometimes it really would be more dangerous to stop than to run the yellow light. The yellow light doesn’t really control capacity, but instead creates an ephemeral Zone of Decision around the intersection. When a light turns yellow, nearby drivers have a choice to make, quickly: do I speed up and drive through the yellow light, or do I slow down and stop? Driving instructors will of course always tell you that a yellow light means slow down and prepare to stop, but on the street, that’s not always how it works. Sometimes it really would be more dangerous to stop than to run the yellow. And sometimes those driving instructors are right: running the yellow is a terrible, dangerous idea. How do you know which is which? Yellow lights generally last three to five seconds. Which means, when one appears, in the space of about a second, you’ve got to do a few intense calculations: how far you are away from the intersection, how fast you’re going, how clear the intersection is, and, increasingly, is there a camera that will take a picture of me running a red light if I time this wrong? This moment is the Zone of Decision. Guess wrong, and cars crash and people can get hurt or die, as thousands do every year. In the near future, it might not be you making those decisions, but the vehicle itself. Audi has introduced a technology that lets cars connect to traffic lights, displaying a countdown on the dashboard to let drivers know when the light will turn green. It’s not much of a stretch to having it know if you can make the yellow light or not. Many things are possible once traffic lights and vehicles can communicate to each other. Our relationship to traffic lights is changing. While many urban traffic lights have been computerized for decades (and thus you can have improvements like pedestrian crossing buttons and different light durations at different times of the day), the interplay between vehicles, pedestrians, and traffic lights is becoming more sophisticated. Cameras and other sensors built into the street or into the traffic lights themselves can detect the presence of cars, bikes, and pedestrians, and adjust accordingly. These coordinated signal systems try to ensure that lights don’t turn red just as cars are arriving, or have a car waiting at a red light when no cross-traffic is going through the intersection. This will save gas, time, and simply driver annoyance. Traffic lights are only a mechanical prop, a signifier of a social contract we’ve agreed to (and have written into law). Of course, once a majority of vehicles (including bicycles) are connected to the internet, they could signal their arrival time and route to nearby traffic signals, allowing them to adjust accordingly. Once the traffic grid understands where people are going, it could very well make getting to destinations much faster and more eco-friendly. The US Department of Transportation estimates that responsive traffic signals could save as much as 10 percent of all motor fuel consumed–17 billion gallons a year. The rollout of smart traffic lights has been slow, with some complaints that the lights are too unpredictable. Like the buzzer that was the original yellow light, there’s likely to be some missteps in the adoption of these new traffic lights. They might require a redesign, adding new signals and cues to let us know what they’re up to. And while some cities just might take Hans Mondeman up on his suggestion to remove all traffic lights—a suggestion that makes more sense with self-driving vehicles—the lights over our streets are likely here to stay (for now). Some have argued that we should do away with traffic lights, insisting they actually make us less safe and hinder traffic flow, that we’ve placed personal responsibility for speed and caution into these devices, and that without them we’d bother to pay attention to the environment outside the car. The patron saint of this philosophy was the late Dutchman Hans Monderman, who believed that our world was divided into two parts: a Traffic Space that was designed for automobiles and a Shared Space for people and automobiles. Traffic Space was the realm of highways and overpasses, while cities and towns were Shared Space. One was built for vehicles, another for people. Cars are guests in Shared Space, and the urban architecture should support that. Traffic lights are firmly in Traffic Space, and thus, the argument goes, have no place in cities. (Problematically, Monderman doesn’t seem concerned with low-density areas like the countryside where people also live and drive.) In some towns where removing the traffic lights has been tried, the results seem to bear Monderman out. They are safer, and traffic still seems to flow. For example, at one intersection where traffic lights were removed, accidents dropped from nine a year to one. But it seems unlikely–at least until cities only allow self-driving cars into them–that most traffic lights will go away.
News Article | August 3, 2015
This NYC Startup Just Raised $5M To Provide Energy To The Masses Reliable energy sources is still a problem for a significant portion of the global population. According to the , 1.1 billion people still do not have access to energy electricity while another 2.9 billion people use solid fuels like wood, charcoal, coal, and even dung for cooking and heating. DUMBO-based startup, is changing that. Focused on what the company calls “off grid energy” products, the company has already developed a technology that converts cooking fires into electricity that is already being used in over 70 countries.. The company is expanding its technology portfolio and it now includes rechargeable LED lighting and power storage options as well. BioLite has developed a very unique model dubbed “Parallel Innovation” where core energy technologies are incubated for traditional commercial purposes, in this case outdoor campers, and these technologies are also simultaneously marketed to those in rural areas in need of energy. The profits from the former are used to subsidize the cost for the latter. Now armed with an additional $5M in financing, Jonathan Cedar, Cofounder and CEO of the company joins us today to discuss the funding, the company’s future plans, and the future of emerging markets energy. Who were your investors and how much did you raise? This $5M round in growth capital is a mix of a Series B round led by Acumen, Clif White Road Investments, and RRE Ventures, along with debt and grant funding from Deutsche Bank and USAID. Tell us about your product or service. BioLite makes affordable products to cook, charge, and light your life off the grid. Our flagship products are the CampStove and HomeStove, wood-burning stoves that convert waste heat into usable electricity. In February 2015 we launched a new lighting vertical with the BioLite NanoGrid, a rechargeable light + power system that fits in your pocket. What inspired you to start the company? Alec and I met at Smart Design in 2006 and realized we both loved to camp. Alec was frustrated that all camping stoves required petroleum fuel and had the idea of a wood-burning stove that could burn as clean as gas. I brought my engineering background to the table and we started to figure it out. Lots of nights and weekends tinkering away on cans and metals. We almost burned down Alec’s loft once, which wasn’t so great, but when that prototype finally worked, it was all worth it. In 2009, we augmented the business: we took our camping stove prototype to a combustion conference out west and learned that half the planet still cooks over smoky open fires, killing more than 4 million people annually and contributing to climate change. We realized our technology had the opportunity to have an impact on this and we began developing the HomeStove, a forced-draft wood burning cookstove that reduces emissions by up to 90% while generating off grid electricity to charge mobile phones and LED lights. How is it different? We believe that the future of energy access is going to happen on a personal scale and we design products to meet that vision. Our technology is designed from first principles and we look for the synergies between potential energy where it exists and the various functions that keep us safe, comfortable and productive like cooking, lighting, and charging for communications. What market you are targeting and how big is it? We serve two unique markets: the outdoor recreational industry and emerging markets. The outdoor industry is a passionate and growing audience showing year over year growth and rising consumer interest. However, our long-term scalable vision is to address the most pressing needs of energy-deprived households which make up 3 billion people. We utilize a model we call Parallel Innovation. We incubate core technologies through our product development team, then develop products and market them to both outdoor enthusiasts and rural poor households living in energy poverty. We take the revenue from our outdoor recreation business and re-invest it into the long-term market building efforts to build a scalable and sustainable solution for emerging markets. It’s a departure from the 1-for-1 model; instead BioLite utilizes a market-based approach. We design products that meet the critical needs of rural consumers at a price-point that they can afford, thus boosting local economies, improving public health, and curbing climate change. What was the funding process like? As a company that works across developed and developing markets, it was an exciting challenge to bring a diversity of partners to the table who could help us hone our capabilities in each of our core disciplines. Acumen brings deep experience in marketing to rural users in emerging markets, Clif Bar sets the bar for a mission aligned and environmentally friendly product, and RRE and Disruptive Innovation Fund help us to innovate the financial models that keep our unique business growing. What are the biggest challenges that you faced while raising capital? BioLite’s story has many facets and addresses two distinct markets with technically complex hardware products. Finding investors who could see the synergies across each of our attributes required us to be very selective and to facilitate a greater-than-usual level of communication between each of our partners to make sure that, as a group, we were all aligned on the path forward for the business. What factors about your business led your investors to write the check? Ultimately I think it was a belief in the amazing team we have assembled that lead each of our investors to join. We also had a strong track record of lean cash management and professional execution in both product operations and marketing which suggested we could deliver on our promises. What are the milestones you plan to achieve in the next six months? We’ve got big goals for 2016. We’ve seen ourselves as an energy company since our start, but I think customers may have seen us a cooking company. In 2015 we launched our first lighting and power-storage products and announced that our core energy verticals are comprised of Cooking, Charging and Lighting. In 2016 we will be nearly doubling our current product line in ways that can make BioLite the center of your off-grid energy systems and truly fulfill the promise of energy everywhere. We are also committed to increasing our presence as a thought leader in the categories in which our mission is strongly informed: climate, energy, and the future of what businesses can look like. Keep an eye out for some big announcements from us later this year. What advice can you offer companies in New York that do not have a fresh injection of capital in the bank? A focus on lean operations is important for bootstrapping and well capitalized companies alike. We’re in a period where giant venture transactions have become the norm and I think this is a dangerous mindset for young companies. Scrappiness is an asset at any size. Where do you see the company going now over the near term? Gearing up for a really big 2016. Plus, we just built an off-grid research facility three hours north of NYC, so in the very near term, we’ll be putting that to the test with all of our latest prototypes. Where is your favorite place to grab a drink in NYC on a nice summer night? A box of wings from Wangs plus a couple pitchers of beer at Mission Dolores in their courtyard is a pretty nice combo. Otherwise, you can find me at Sunny’s in red hook.