Nokero: The Solar Light Bulb Changing the World
by Mitchell Clute
For the 1.6 billion people worldwide with no access to electricity—and at least a billion more subject to shortages and rolling blackouts—some form of lighting is essential; however, until recently the choice has been kerosene lamps or even dirtier choices, such as wood and dung. One company, Nokero, is bringing a healthy solar lighting and phone-charging option to people in 120 countries, many of whom would otherwise rely on dangerous energy sources. But in January of 2010, the company was only a dream. Quite literally, a dream.
A Dream Comes True
“The date of conception of the first bulb was January 23, 2010,” says Nokero founder Steve Katsaros, recalling his flash of insight, in a conversation with Organic Connections. “I woke up with the idea and sketched it in the morning—something I commonly do.”
Katsaros is a life-long inventor, mechanical engineer, and patent agent by training; so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was able to sketch the bulb, file for a patent four days later, and have his company up and running within six months. In its first month of operation, Nokero sold $50,000 worth of its first offering, which features a built-in solar charger and hook so that it can hang to charge outside by day and then be brought in to provide lighting at night.
The funny thing is, Katsaros initially thought his design would be most useful on the modern American patio. “It was only after I conceived the product that I learned that one out of every four humans in the world has no access to electricity,” he confesses. “I found the problem after I came up with the solution!”
What makes an inventor tick? “You should talk to my mom,” Katsaros says. “I was taking off doorknobs by the age of three, and at six I swapped out a new thermostat for the house. By the time I was in high school, I’d invented a ski tuning tool for sharpening skis, which I sold to shops to support my ski racing. In college I developed a bike rack and brought it to market, and after college I sold an invention to the ski company Dynastar, leading to the first shaped ski with risers.”
Katsaros received a BS in mechanical engineering from Purdue and in 2002 followed up his ski-related inventions with a design for RevoPower, a wheel with a built-in two-stroke engine that could be retrofitted to a bicycle, essentially converting it into a motorcycle. In 2012, he was recognized by his alma mater with the annual Outstanding Mechanical Engineer Award for his work launching Nokero.
But at the moment in 2010 when the light bulb came on in his brain, Katsaros was working unhappily as a patent agent in a law office, and he was bored. Once he’d developed the concept for a solar light, Katsaros realized just how many people in the world could benefit from such an invention. All he needed was a name.
The Birth of Nokero
Katsaros brainstormed more than a hundred possible names. He wanted something that the company could clearly brand, and he wanted it to have meaning. Kero, he learned, is common parlance for kerosene, as gas is for gasoline. And kerosene, for many of the world’s poor, is one of the few available sources of light.
“The world’s poor are spending $38 billion annually on kerosene,” Katsaros points out, “but it’s really a lighting source of last resort. For fifty cents, they can buy enough light for a night or two. Yet there’s a huge amount of data on the carcinogens it releases and its effects on the respiratory system.
“The United Nations has declared this the decade of sustainable energy for all,” he continues, “so this issue is really on the radar and the sector is taking off. But even though we’re seeing an acceleration of sales, we have a long way to go before we have five hundred million people with solar lights.”
For the world’s poorest, the idea of spending eight to fifteen dollars on a solar light is unfeasible; though the purchase will break even in just two months, they simply don’t have the savings. To get their products in consumers’ hands, Nokero works both with humanitarian groups and with networks of distributors around the world.
“I classify our buyers in two big buckets—aid and paid,” Katsaros laughs. The humanitarian groups include ChildFund International, microlender EarthSpark International and many others, as well as countless church groups and smaller organizations that purchase bulbs to distribute during aid work.
But the paid networks are truly unique. “Our reseller networks are different all over the world,” explains Katsaros. “In India, we work with a famous old company with seven thousand door-to-door salespeople. In Nigeria, boys on bikes sell ice cream and solar lights. In Tanzania, a group of women entrepreneurs go out in the streets of Dar es Salaam whenever there’s a brownout. Rule number one is go where the market is.”
In four years, Nokero has grown to have a staff of fifteen—ten in its Denver home office, the rest in China and Kenya. In the near future, the company is aiming to ship a million units per quarter. “We’re a for-profit company,” Katsaros concludes, “but it’s about people and the planet, not just dollars. Our work is from the heart, and the stories we hear daily mean so much more than money.”
For people in 120 countries around the world, Nokero means light—clean, safe light that allows families to connect and children to study without breathing in smoke and fumes. And for Katsaros, Nokero is nothing less than a dream come true.
To learn about or purchase Nokero’s solar bulbs and chargers, visit www.nokero.com.