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These $460 “family-sized” disaster survival kits are a sign of the times

“Holy sh*t,” Biolite’s VP of marketing Erica Rosen remembers thinking after Hurricane Sandy. “We’ve been thinking about off-grid energy for outdoor recreation: We’re totally missing the ball on emergency readiness.”

These $460 “family-sized” disaster survival kits are a sign of the times
[Photo: Biolite]

You’re not imagining it: Natural disasters are on the rise, thanks to man-made climate change. Unfortunately, it is now more important than ever to have a plan for your family in case a hurricane, bomb cyclone, or polar vortex strikes your neighborhood. In fact, preparing for disasters is now become a multimillion-dollar industry—and mainstream companies are taking note.

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One of them is Biolite, a 10-year-old company that specializes in creating outdoor stoves and off-grid energy solutions. This month—which is National Preparedness Month—Biolite is debuting a series of limited-edition prep kits. There are three kits for families of different sizes, ranging from $129.75 for the “solo” kit to $459.45 for the “family” kit. All the kits include a Lifestraw (a water filtration system), along with things like headlamps, solar panels, and lighting systems that can use either electricity from the grid or solar energy. Over time, as Biolite gets feedback from customers, the company plans to create more kits like these.

[Photo: Biolite]

Originally, Biolite founders Jonathan Cedar and Alec Drummond launched the company to solve a personal problem. They were avid campers, but they didn’t like having to bring gas canisters with them on trips to avoid burning wood, which generates a lot of smoke and particles because it doesn’t burn efficiently. They spent three years developing a wood-burning camping stove that burned clean, thanks to technology that injects the fire with highly calibrated points of oxygen, raising the overall temperature of the fire and decreasing the amount of particulate matter that goes up into the air.

[Photo: Biolite]

The company launched as an outdoor-focused brand in 2009, but the founders quickly realized their technology could help people who still use wood-burning fires to cook at home. Indoor fires are particularly common in the developing world and many homes don’t have any source of ventilation, like chimneys, for the smoke to escape. This generates a lot of dangerous air pollution (when particulate matter enters a person’s lungs or bloodstream, it can lead to cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases).

Over time, Biolite has evolved into a social enterprise that generates revenue from its camping stoves, while also creating stoves that are sold at low prices in the developing world. The company develops new products for both of these markets in an approach it describes as “parallel innovation.”

[Photo: Biolite]

“We hire a single R&D team of industrial designers, electrical and mechanical engineers, and combustion experts,” says Erica Rosen, Biolite’s VP of marketing. “Then those core technologies are turned into products specific to either the outdoor market or emerging markets.”

[Photo: Biolite]

But as American customers increasingly face natural disasters from hurricanes to heat waves, which can take out their electricity for days at a time, they face similar challenges to the people in emerging markets who don’t have regular access to a power grid.

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This tertiary market first became obvious in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, when Biolite’s offices in New York lost power. The company had spent the last decade considering the needs of people who don’t have reliable power sources to light their homes, cook their meals, or charge their cell phones—and suddenly, all of that knowledge and technology became useful at home.

[Photo: Biolite]

“We set up charging stations around New York with our camp stoves,” Rosen says. “We would boil water so people could have a cup of tea and charge their phones using our solar chargers. It was a little moment of humanity, but it was also this moment when we said, ‘Holy shit, we’ve been thinking about off-grid energy for outdoor recreation: We’re totally missing the ball on emergency readiness.'”

All of this has led to the brand’s new disaster preparedness kits, which contain a selection of existing Biolite products that will be particularly useful in case of a disaster. The kits are anchored on SolarHome, a portable solar micro-grid that the brand sells in East Africa. “We have been able to successfully cross it over into our domestic market because emergencies like power outages directly overlap with how our off-grid households are using this product every day,” Rosen says.

[Photo: Biolite]

More and more consumers are beginning to see exactly how climate change will affect their daily lives. Scientists say the frequency of natural disasters will only increase over the next few decades unless we stage an intervention quickly. While activists like Greta Thunberg and politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing for governments to intervene, the Trump administration hasn’t budged. Meanwhile, Americans are also focused on surviving these disasters, as hurricanes, fires, and floods bear down.

“We think of Greta Thunberg and what she says about spending other people’s carbon budgets,” says Rosen, referring to how developed countries like the United States have been generating more than their fair share of carbon emissions, while forcing people in the developing world and future generations to reckon with the impact of climate change. “When we spend the world’s carbon budget, this is the situation we’re left with.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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