Judy Newman, July 24, 2016
Flipping a switch to turn on the lights or pressing a button to start a computer and connect to the Internet — these are some of the daily functions most Americans take for granted.
That’s not the case, though, for millions of people who live in remote areas around the world with no electricity or broadband access.
Two Madison companies are working to change that and have won awards for their efforts.
One is part of a huge, multi-billion-dollar plan involving celebrity investors from well-established companies. In sharp contrast, the other is a small startup by two UW-Madison graduate students. But both could be an important step toward bringing needed utilities to people without access.
Design Concepts has designed a device for OneWeb, a project to make high-speed Internet accessible around the globe via hundreds of low-orbiting satellites. Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic and Paul Jacobs of Qualcomm are among those backing the proposal.
NovoMoto is a startup created by two Ph.D candidates working on ways to bring low-cost electricity to rural areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo using solar power. The goal is “to empower these people,” said co-founder Mehrdad Arjmand.
OneWeb founder Greg Wyler came up with the idea in 2012, according to the project’s website, to build the world’s largest constellation of satellites that will cover the globe with high-speed Internet access.
Based in Arlington, Va., the company says it plans to launch 648 satellites, starting in 2018, to circle the globe in low Earth orbit, or about 750 miles up. Nearly all of the satellites will be built in Florida, through an agreement with Airbus Defence and Space; the first few test versions will be assembled and tested in Toulouse, France.
So how did a 48-year-old design firm in Madison with 63 employees get involved in the massive, global project? Through its small branch in San Francisco, established about three years ago, with seven employees, Design Concepts president Dave Franchino said.
“OneWeb heard about us ... They interviewed us to review our skill sets and capabilities.
“To be perfectly candid, the task was very, very hard and the timeline was very short,” Franchino said.
Design Concepts had less than two months to develop its model. Nineteen staff members worked on the project, including two employees in the company’s San Francisco office. “A lot of people touched this effort,” Franchino said.
The mission was to create a wireless terminal, like a router, to receive the Internet signal from a satellite transmission using solar-powered electricity.
And there were complications. The device had to accommodate diverse and intense climates, be lightweight and low-cost to ship, and easy for any customer to install without special tools.
“This is a very different type of technology,” said Joan Neeno, Design Concepts marketing manager. “How do you make a router that can sit outside and take Sahara (desert) heat and monsoons? ... The goal was to have any adult be able to set this on their roof by themselves.”
The result was a small, solar-powered unit — about the size of a large suitcase — that can sit on the roof of a home or business and receive the satellite signals.
The prototype won a bronze award in the International Design Excellence Awards presented by the Industrial Designers Society of America in Dearborn, Michigan in June. More than 1,700 design concepts were submitted from more than 30 countries; 136 won awards.
Franchino said he was thrilled to work with Wyler, who previously founded 03b Networks, a 12-satellite telecom network. “He has a strong sense of social purpose and higher mission. He is not only highly visionary but he is very inspiring,” Franchino said.
Aaron Olson, 27, was born in Kikwit, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country formerly known as Zaire. His family moved to the U.S. when he was 2 years old.
When Olson went back in 2015 to visit relatives in Mboka Paul, a rural village about 50 miles northeast of the capital of Kinshasa, he realized few people there have electricity in their homes.
“Sixty-eight million lack access to reliable electricity in the Congo,” Olson said. “So this is an immense problem.”
Rural residents depend on kerosene lamps for light at night, and charge their mobile phones and appliance batteries at diesel generators. The expense for both comes to about $22 a month, or 44 percent of the average annual income of $600 a year in Mboka Paul, Olson said.
There are solar companies in Kinshasa but at a cost of more than $500 to buy and install the equipment, only the affluent can afford it, he said.
Olson teamed up with fellow engineering doctoral candidate Arjmand, classmates in a UW course on entrepreneurship, to see how they could help. By November 2015, they had created NovoMoto — Novo, meaning “new,” in Portuguese, and Moto, which means “energy” or “fire” in Lingala, the language in western portions of the Congo.
Their first concept, to create solar-powered kiosks for groups of people to use as charging stations, won them $50,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy; a $20,000 Clean Cities Award; and $20,000 from the Hanley Family Foundation in the Clean Energy Trust Challenge in Chicago in April.
But conversations with their partners in the Congo — Olson’s aunt, uncle and cousin — modified their approach. “They told us the people were more interested in home solar systems,” Arjmand said.
So Arjmand, 31, and Olson redesigned the prototype to a size suitable for use on a home or business.
“Electricity provides a lot ... So they can use a refrigerator, radio, TV or fan, and have access to laptops. Many of them don’t have these appliances right now,” Arjmand said.
The revised concept won NovoMoto the third place award in the Cleantech University Prize National Competition in Denver in June — featuring the top student teams in each of eight regional contests — and an additional $20,000 DOE grant.
A week ago, Olson returned from another trip to the Congo, invigorated with even more ideas and impressed with even greater needs of the people in the rural communities. “It was an incredible trip,” he said.
NovoMoto started a pilot project in Mboka Paul, installing solar panels on three businesses. “We had a huge amount of people come out and watch,” Olson said.
“Customers kept telling us how important refrigeration is,” he said. “You can freeze fish, keep drinks cold. There is high value to a lot of people in rural communities.”
Through the solar utility company that Olson and Arjmand want to establish, NovoMoto will pay for the equipment and charge residents a small amount for installation plus a small monthly fee.
“It’s a method of making this power accessible to a lot more people,” Olson said.
He said a company in Tanzania is using a similar business model.
NovoMoto’s utility will have control systems, developed in Madison, that can turn a customer’s power on — or off, if the bill isn’t paid — and that monitor the equipment’s status.
“If a battery is not operating correctly, you want to know before the customer has weeks or months of bad service,” Olson said.
He and Arjmand are working on the controls technology with UW’s Microgrid Research group, part of the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium.
They are also trying to reduce the cost of their systems so the fees they charge are affordable.
But electricity is not the only huge need in the rural Congo. Olson and his relatives met with local village leaders who asked for their help on other matters, as well, such as sanitation, building high schools and providing clean water.
Water pumps had been put in some years ago, the leaders said, but the diesel generator that powered the pumps malfunctioned and damaged the system.
“All of this is now sitting there unused, and people are forced to get their water from a local swamp — with ducks and pigs walking around in it ... It was really eye-opening,” Olson said.
With the money the team won in the Cleantech competitions, Olson and Arjmand said they hope to start installing the solar units in larger numbers by the end of 2016.
Olson said if NovoMoto succeeds, he envisions using a variety of methods to provide solar power to rural Congo eventually — individual solar units, neighborhood kiosks and small microgrids with power lines extending from several solar panels.
“We’ll take it step by step,” he said.