How Many People Does It Take to Make a New Light Bulb?

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Will Pate

Don Tapscott

Mark Bent had a bright idea. The former U.S. diplomat and oilman had spent years in Africa, and as his working career wound down, he wanted to give back. The continent has no shortage of persistent problems, but Bent tackled one that was both simple and pervasive: the lack of artificial light. Many Africans lack access to regular electricity, leaving them at the mercy of expensive battery-powered flashlights, polluting kerosene lamps — or simply in the dark. No electric light may mean that a child can't study after the sun sets, or that young girls need to spend more time gathering firewood during the day, worsening deforestation and leaving them vulnerable to attack in refugee camps and other unstable areas. "It was just amazing to me that two billion people on the Earth don't have light at night," says Bent.

So a few years ago Bent formed SunNight Solar to manufacture and distribute inexpensive solar-powered flashlights. His BOGO (for "Buy One, Give One"; buy one in the U.S., and SunNight sends one to Africa) lights were a perfect fit for sun-rich Africa, providing five hours of illumination — with energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) — after a 10-hour charge. Bent designed the flashlights himself — even making one model in pink, to discourage men from seizing the products from women. (They wouldn't want to be seen with the feminine-looking lights.) But he ran into a problem: unlike kerosene lamps, which can be hung over a table to spread central light, Bent's BOGOs couldn't illuminate an entire room. This was an engineering challenge, but having already sunk $250,000 of his own money into SunNight, Bent didn't have much left over for research and development. "I could have hired 10 engineers and put them in a lab and had them figure it out," says Bent, an intense, silver-haired ex-Marine. "But that's too expensive."

Enter InnoCentive, a research firm that does R and D with a difference. InnoCentive has built up a network of some 140,000 "problem solvers" around the world — they are science Ph.D.s in Russia and engineers in India and amateur inventors in America. InnoCentive posts "challenges" it receives from client companies — the pharma giant Eli Lilly is a customer — on its website, and the solvers go to work, with a cash reward at stake for the right answer. Not only does the InnoCentive method save on costs by allowing companies to outsource some of their R and D, but it also mines a sprawling network of experts from a diverse array of fields, raising the chance that someone might come up with a true out of-the-box solution. That's the sort of digital crowd-sourcing that helped create Wikipedia. [Hear Don Tapscott, the author of the book Wikinomics, talk about the effect of such mass collaboration on innovation in this week's Greencast, posted above.] "No company in the world has more than 1% of the resources in its given area," says Dwayne Spradlin, InnoCentive's CEO. "Suddenly, your organization can tap into hundreds of thousands of people with the right background."

InnoCentive was looking to expand beyond industrial research into philanthropy; Bent needed a better light for the developing world. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York venture capital firm Spencer Trask — launched over a century ago by the man who helped finance Thomas Edison's first light bulb — Bent put up a challenge on InnoCentive's network to improve on his BOGO light. It was answered in short order by a engineer in New Zealand named Russell McMahon, who came up with a new design that makes better use of both the solar battery and the LEDs, allowing for a stronger, more dependable light. The result was a perfect example of wiki-innovation — people from opposite sides of the planet, who would have never met each other, coming together to find a solution through the power of the Internet. "There's no limit geographically to the power of problem solving like this," says Kevin Kimberlin, Spencer Trask's CEO. "We're in the first inning of a new renaissance."

A new scientific renaissance is exactly what the battle against climate change needs. As Kimberlin says: "We don't have an energy crisis; we have an imagination crisis." Solving global warming will require changes in the way we live and use energy, but even more vital are technological leaps in clean technology that must be every bit as revolutionary as Edison's incandescent bulb. Spencer Trask and the Rockefeller Foundation have inundated InnoCentive with an array of challenges in clean tech — including a call for a new kind of electricity-free light bulb that would make Edison's invention obsolete. "We want the kind of challenges that will make a difference in the world," says Spradlin.

Innovation on the wikinomics model has already made a difference for Bent and the tens of thousands of African families using his solar-powered light. The company recently passed $1 million in sales, and Bent expects to expand his line, adding a solar-powered UV water-filtration system. "I know that somewhere some kid is using my light, and that's a cool feeling," says Bent. "I want to take it all the way." In the new wikiworld, he can count on lots of help.