Ready Set Go: Fenix Rises to Face Gridless Power

Among the 2.6 billion people in the world who don’t have regular access to grid power, an ad-hoc economy has emerged around junky car batteries. Local entrepreneurs in villages in Africa and India are buying these often second-hand batteries, carting the heavy and potentially unsafe devices to their shops and selling the power to the village for applications like cell phone charging. After spending some time in these regions, the young, ambitious crew from the newly emerged startup Fenix International, thought there had to be a better way.

Fenix, which is coming out of stealth on Monday, makes a device called the ReadySet, which is a plug-n-play, portable, lead-acid battery that is wrapped in a protective casing, has all the basic connectors for charging devices, and uses smart circuitry to enable the battery to last up to three years (2 years longer than many of the car batteries that are being used in the ecosystem). The ReadySet system also comes with power generation options, like a bike generator (up to 100 watt hours) and a solar panel (15 watt hours), which can recharge the battery with clean power.

The ReadySet’s smart circuits are a big part of Fenix’s secret sauce — the software and electronics make sure that the batteries are not 100 percent discharged, which can kill a battery, and significantly cut down on its lifespan. While laptops and cell phones are already designed with software to avoid a full discharge (when your phone says you’ve got no charge left, there’s actually still a good deal of charge), car batteries are a lot less sophisticated. The result is that when car batteries are used for energy storage and off-grid power, they tend to only last about a year.

Fenix is targeting an introductory price of about $150 for its ReadySet device combined with one of its power generation gadgets (either the bike generator or the solar panel) and the company sees an opportunity to drop that price as volumes increase and the company benefits from economies of scale. Around $150 is still pretty high for a product for the developing world, but Fenix is selling the ReadySet to entrepreneurs that tend to have a little more access to capital than an average consumer is these regions. About 2.5 percent of the populations of these villages is some kind of entrepreneur, Fenix CEO Mike Lin tells me.

Lin estimates that there are about 150 million car batteries being used as distributed grid power, despite the fact that there are very few studies on the use of car batteries for power usage. Fenix’s Brian Warshawsky notes that there are so few studies of car battery usage because governments in developing countries commonly want their electrification rates to appear as high as possible. “It’s kind of a shameful subject to have such a small population connected to the grid,” says Lin.

Lin and Warshawsky are not relying on the government and nonprofits to distribute their device. They specifically opted to have Fenix, which they founded in July 2009, run as a for-profit. While non-profits have done a lot of solid work in certain developing countries, for-profits have often been able to deliver more successful products to happier customers. Fenix looks to how successful cell phones companies — and companies like Coca Cola (s KO) — have been, and draws inspiration from them, says Lin. Travel anywhere in Africa, and you can find a bottle of Coke and cell phone coverage in even the remotest of villages.

That’s one reason why Fenix has decided to partner with the major telcos in the developing world for distribution, along with other partners like NGOs and service providers: to effectively and economically sell and market its devices. The telcos could benefit from the proliferation of the energy storage devices and distributed cell phone charging, and could white-label the ReadySets with their brands. Fenix says it’s already working with some major cell phone service providers.

Fenix also has an important ideology beyond working with local partners: “We try to be as open source as possible,” Lin tells me. In other words, no proprietary connectors are allowed on the device, only USB and cigarette lighter connectors. In addition, Lin hopes that one day they can create an online community that can share ideas about how to develop home-brew energy solutions.

Of course, Fenix isn’t the only company developing micro distributed power for the developing world. Solar lantern makers D.light, Duron, and Egg-Energy, have all developed different ways to face the problem of off-grid power.  In fact, D.light’s founders were classmates of Lin’s, and Fenix says it sees potential partnerships with startups like Egg-Energy.

The next step going forward, after its pilot project in Africa last November, is to launch its first commercial implementation in the fall, and then raise the next round of VC financing. Most of the small team actually worked together before on a startup called Potenco, a pull-cord charger developer, which was planned to work with the One Laptop Per Child project. That project didn’t work out, and Potenco was unable to raise more money after a certain point, so most of the team moved over to work on Fenix. No doubt, it’s a very cool idea, but we’ll see how its customers respond to it in a few months. As Lin explained to me, there’ve been several products that have been developed for distributed power; the proof is in what the consumers there think is worth spending money on.

Here’s a video on their team and plan:


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