What is a sustainable innovation? I had the pleasure of representing Fast Company among judges from Nike and IDEO at the Sustainable Brands Conference's second annual Innovation Open in Monterey, CA this week, and we had a lively discussion on that topic. Conclusion, at least from our small sample size and deliberations: It has to be a viable business with growth potential; an articulate, smart team; and the basic idea behind it has to capture the imagination with its world-changing potential impact.
Blue Avocado, an audience favorite, presented a great concept, team, and business. I'm using one of the bags as a carry-on right now. But the idea of replacing plastic disposable grocery bags with reusable ones—even millions of plastic bags, with very well-designed reusable ones—just didn't excite the judges with its potential impact.
Top prize went instead to Biolite, an ingenious wood-burning cookstove. An astonishing 3 billion people burn wood every day for fuel, explained the founder and CEO, who sports the amazingly appropriate name of Jonathan Cedar and spent five years at Smart Design. An open fire can produce as much emissions as a car; the respiratory effects of smoke are a leading cause of developing-world deaths; women and children spend hours gathering wood, worsening the effects of deforestation; and black carbon, the dark stuff in soot, is the second-leading greenhouse gas after CO2.
There are lots of people working on different approaches to a better developing-world stove: biogas, biomass-based ethanol, electricity, and different wood- and propane-fueled designs. Biolite takes the waste heat generated by the wood fire, puts it through a little thermoelectric module on the side, and uses that to power a fan that can cut wood consumption in half, reduce smoke by 95% and nearly eliminate black carbon. Manufacturing costs are low. And on top of that, the cogeneration unit answers a key question raised by a fascinating New Yorker article on this topic in December; namely, how do you convince 3 billion people to alter their clear preference for cooking on open fires? Well, Biolite also lets them charge their cell phones while making dinner.
They have a decent business model too: make money right now while they build out their distribution network by selling a camp-stove version of their design in the U.S. for $100-$150.