Impact Hub member Burt Hamner aims to personalize renewable energy across the globe, one tiny turbine at a time.
By Kate Bandzmer
“Previously I had a company making micro-hydro turbines for canals.” Burt Hamner, CEO of Hydrobee reflects on his past experience: “That company was sold, and the people that bought it messed it up, leaving me frustrated and wanting to do something with my knowledge.”
Burt led Hydrovolts Inc., inventing turbines and acquiring patents, and helping the company to win multiple awards. It became one of the top water technology companies in the nation. So when he later came across a tiny turbine developed in China that could fit in a household water pipe and power a flow meter, Burt’s innovation prevailed.
“I bought one and played with it, and I turned it into a way to charge my phone from my kitchen sink. It worked. I had a eureka moment."
With one eureka moment and a year’s worth of fundraising and development behind him, Burt is now a few weeks away from receiving his finished prototype. It is a product that could potentially change the lives of billions of people around the world who are living off the grid. “I knew then and still know that there’s a market for it,” he explains, “and that’s really what started it. It was my own previous interest in renewable energy, and then finding this funny little turbine.”
Burt had found a way to create electricity on a personal, portable level. His next step was to join the “Kick” program through Impact Hub's in-house accelerator, Fledge. “That’s how I became an Impact Hub member. I came in with this idea for a turbine that would fit on a faucet.”
As he began to open up into conversation about his turbine, he realized its full potential. “According to the World Bank, people are spending 30 billion dollars a year on USB charging off the grid. They have to pay somebody 25, 30 cents every time they use their phone. And they have to go find the person. Sometimes they’ll walk three or four hours each way to find someone to charge the phone. It’s a totally new global market that popped into existence from nothing and is affecting two billion people.”
“I said, ‘Look, we can attach it to plumbing!’, and the people said, ‘But Burt, all the poor people in Africa don’t have plumbing.’ Okay, do they have rivers? They have rivers, so we invented a way to put it in a river and charge from there. But it was like, one restart after another.”
The biggest challenge for Burt in 2014 was reconceiving the product. Despite all of the iterations he went through, he knew that this was a valuable process, and recommends it to anyone following through on an idea like this one. “Try to get into an accelerator or incubator or training program that helps you create a logical business concept. They’re in many places people don’t expect. Then look very hard at the resources you have for living, because it’s all going to take a long time.”
“It feels great,” Burt says of winning awards with the concept for Hydrobee and gaining funding from multiple sources, “but it also feels slow because I can’t accelerate the production any faster than I am. It’s being done by contract workers in China.”
He’s relied on his family for support and learned how to operate with very low overhead. “Startups can now do so much without spending much money. We don’t need an office. We need a laptop and a place to go with wifi like Impact Hub. So many of the services and things that one needs are online, and they’re cheaper.” Because of working at Impact Hub, Burt’s been able to gain involvement from professional advisors who specialize in product-based knowledge, prototyping and fundraising.
Burt’s previous experience developing solar powered phone-charging systems changed the way he thinks about renewable energy. He now knows that to effectively charge a phone in real-time, you need a very large, expensive solar panel. With Hydrobee, the solution is to focus on flexibility. “We focused not on the energy source, but how to charge from multiple sources and use the turbine as a module that you can stick anywhere on anything. You got sun? Solar panel. If you’ve got a river, toss it in the river. If you’ve got a bike, and you ride it for a living... there are a lot of people in the third world who ride bikes for a living. They’re on the bike all day, and if they can make a battery and sell charges, they’ll buy my product. Anything that helps them make more income.”
“The energy poverty is exploding because people keep moving and populating in places where there isn’t a grid. And the numbers are off the charts. We’re talking fifty million people in the Central African area in the next ten years. There are roads and buildings, but nobody running electric lines. Or they’re all pirated and people defend them.”
“You don’t need infrastructure, that’s the odd thing. In a world of USB devices, everything needs a 5 volt power plug. And if what you need is light and communication, USB power is enough for LED lights and phones. LED lights need 3 watts to light up a whole room. And now you don’t need wires, just a central charging place where everyone can bring a battery and swap good ones for dead ones.” With Hydrobee, battery charging can be complemented using elements like sun and water. “Tell your kid, go down and get a new battery. Then you bring it back and plug it in and you’re good.”
Before Hydrobee can be applied to the global market, there is a lot more learning and testing to do. Burt’s developed partnerships with a few local nonprofits to do this, including Global Partnerships and PATH. “Before I go to see these people, I’m using the PATH toolkit to educate myself about what it is I’m getting into. I haven’t tried to sell this kind of thing in the third world before. I’ve been a consultant to governments, and it’s not the same. So the PATH toolkit is laying out the details of what it’s like to get out there and move product.”
“The other reference that we’re using as a business tool is a book called The Business Solution to Poverty by Warwick, DiLeo and Polak. They’ve been to the Hub to talk about their book. They’re very practical guys. Old men who have done a lot. So we’re using that as a way to educate ourselves. I like looking at references so I don’t make the same mistakes that other people do.”
Burt has learned that it takes a number of steps to get to the developing world. “Remember, what hardware products need is field time; testing with people who use it,” he says.
Hydrobee’s first products will be used by American outdoor enthusiasts and people excited about the technology. “People who are doing expeditions, or anyone going off the grid for four or five days, will be able to recharge using one or two of the accessories we provide. One is a roll-up solar panel, and the other is a hand crank with a built-in LED lantern. So between the sun and your muscles, you’ll never run out of power.”
Depending on which markets take off, they will add more accessories. “The markets are changing on an annual basis in this area,” Burt says. He’ll also be depending on spokespeople to test the products and share their stories. “In particular we’ll be going after professional outdoor photographers, because they’re famous gear nuts. I mean, they really use gear. The boaters will like it too, cause they’re gadget heads.”
Burt expects that Hydrobee products will change the way people think about renewable energy. “It will lead to a lot of creativity as people invent new ways to spin it. Once they have it, they’ll start looking around themselves. We’ve designed it with a universal adaptor system, so you can attach it to anything that’s got a motion source. And who knows what that might be? I’ve got a version that will work on a potter’s wheel. Make a pot, charge your phone. Why not?”
From his experience living in earthquake-prone Manila for four years, Burt knows that the implications can become much larger than that too. “When we get into these areas where there’s been some kind of disaster, and people are aggressively looking for a way out, people’s minds start to open up. If there’s a blackout, they can play with this and get their phone charged. There’s no such thing as a USB drill press, but that’s because no one’s realized that there’s a hundred billion people that could use it.”
Eventually, Burt foresees reporting on quality of life factors that have been improved from use of Hydrobee. “How much time they’ve added to their day because they now have light. Saving money because they don’t have to buy kerosene. Or not walking five hours a week to go get their phone charged at the next village.”
For now, Hydrobee is raising the capital to build a team. The team will do pilot tests on the prototype, make improvements, and reach out to early users. “We’ll get a core group of early users that will be our best pals in the world and tell us how to fix it. We’ll write about it, build a community around it, and then we’ll be taking preorders.”
Like what you read? Learn more and contact Burt at hydrobee.com/contact!