Chicago company’s invention sheds light on disaster relief

A college project turns into a full-fledged marketable solar innovation with a boost from crowdfunding and Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban.

Happy Tuesday readers,

Disasters and tragedy often spark ingenuity because they shine a spotlight on problems that entrepreneurs can solve. We’re seeing that daily during the pandemic as innovators develop products and services targeting the virus itself as well as mitigating its negative effects on humans and society.

This disaster-based solutions concept is what motivated Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork to found LuminAID, a Chicago-based company that designed an inflatable solar lantern. 

The two met at Columbia University in New York just weeks after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and for a class project they designed a product to help disaster survivors. They realized that power loss is a huge issue during disasters, especially in a country like Haiti with less developed electricity transmission infrastructure. It’s not just a matter of getting power to devices, but of ensuring safety, especially for survivors who are displaced from their homes and living in tent cities. 

“After dark, things can be very unsafe for people,” Sreshta said. Without lights, disaster survivors cannot see other people nearby and protect themselves or their property. Moreover, using traditional disaster illumination tools such as candles or gas-fueled lanterns presents a fire hazard and emissions of potentially toxic fumes.

The pair developed the first inflatable solar light and turned the class project into a real-life marketable product through the help of a crowdfunding campaign in 2011. Manufacturing began in 2012. In 2015, Sreshta and Stork appeared on Shark Tank and Mark Cuban became one of the business’ first investors.

The collapsible lights are portable and easy to store, as well as cost-effective to distribute. They float in water and are resistant to dust and weather conditions. Their solar capabilities make them a sustainable resource.

There are now several different lantern models. Newer versions contain a solar-rechargeable battery that consumers can use to charge cell phones or other electronic devices, another clear benefit during a disaster. “It speaks to how small things can unlock big categories of things that people need on the ground after disasters. This gives people an additional lifeline to know they have a way to recharge their phones,” Sreshta said.

LuminAID has grown into a six-person company and contracts out some services. The products now reach beyond merely disaster recovery applications. They’re proving popular for camping, outdoor activities at home, and other leisure activities where light is an asset. But LuminAID is still a major player in the humanitarian relief space and works with numerous organizations to get the devices where they can boost safety for struggling populations.

“It's a really good feeling,” Sreshta said. “We were just two people at computers building something meaningful. It’s a great experience to be able to do that.”

Do you know of other Midwest entrepreneurs solving humanitarian problems with tech? Let me know so I can highlight them in a future newsletter. Email katie@centered.tech or connect on Twitter @centereddottech to share ideas.


Other stories we’re watching:

  • The pandemic would be the perfect time for tech companies to launch delivery robots on a wide scale, but the technology just isn’t ready yet. Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Refraction AI is among those continuing to test its delivery robots, but the pandemic presents financial and staffing challenges. (Wired)

  • The City of Chicago launched a mobile-friendly web app, Chi COVID Coach, that lets the city’s health department communicate directly with citizens seeking COVID-19 information or treatment. It offers guidance about where and how to receive medical care, sends personalized text messages, and lets people pre-register online for a COVID-19 vaccine to be administered once one becomes available. (Chicago Sun-Times)

  • Organizations in Detroit are turning to technology to connect with human trafficking victims during the pandemic instead of their usual in-person outreach. (Model D)


Centered.tech is a publication of the Energy News Network, in partnership with the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation and mHUB.