Solio Solar Charger Provides Energy On Demand

Chris Hornor

Having sold more solar units than any other company, Better Energy Systems’ green résumé touts an environmentally-friendly manufacturing process and marketing efforts that include helping citizens of developing countries reduce the health impacts of energy consumption. To talk about his company’s success providing solar on demand in the form of the Solio, VerdeXchange News spoke with Better Energy Systems CEO and founder, Chris Hornor.


The press refers to you as “the man making renewable energy easier.” How did you get that tagline?

  That tagline came at a stage when I understood, being a consumer myself, what it takes to buy a product and really be attracted to a product. When you combine that dynamic with renewable energy, which we’re very passionate about, aesthetic appeal, functionality, and practicality, you get a winning combination. I knew early on that it was a combination that could make renewable energy proliferate on the mass market, and that is what we’ve been able to achieve.
What is the Better Energy Systems business model; and more specifically, what is the business model for your first product, Solio? What’s the market niche that Solio is filling?
The opportunity comes down to a convergence of people requiring increased battery life, because of the emergence of mobile phones and other handheld devices. If you combine that with colored screens, Bluetooth, streaming video, and everything else, a power gap is basically forming between what consumers request and what they desire from a handheld versus the relatively limited growth in lithium ion battery technology. Solar was a natural extension to help close that power gap. That is one of the areas that we’re focused on as a company, but certainly not the only one. The other hugely important factor was to create a product that embodied all of our ideals in terms of product development. At the very beginning, we did a full toxicity and life-cycle analysis—a comprehensive cradle-to-cradle analysis all the way down to the mineral sources of the components. At a very early stage, we were able to create a product with integrity.
The second very important requirement in the company is to create and deliver a product that has environmental appeal combined with cutting-edge design and technology, to really create a new niche in the market. Before Solio came along, the category of hybrid charging didn’t exist. There were products that were designed by engineers, such as flat solar panel that only output six volts, opened like book, and lacked an internal battery or software. We did all that. We truly created a product that would stand up to the modern consumer.

What solar technology does Solio rely on, and has there been an evolution in the technology/materials incorporated in Solio?

By combining the high-capacity lithium ion batteries in the Solio with very, very high-efficiency polycrystalline cells, and a secret sauce that converts some of the power from solar into the battery, with the software that we’ve developed to give the Solio ultimate flexibility in terms of the devices it charges—these are the crucial components that make this the only solar-powered product on the market like it. It is, far and away, the most advanced solar-powered product for consumer electronics on the market today.

We just recently came from the Outdoor Retail Trade Show where we saw other forms of solar panels, flexible cells, and all those other things, but nobody has the focus, the IT, or the flexibility to say, “Now I’m going to charge an iPhone, and now I’m going to charge my Sony digital camera,” and the consumer doesn’t have to think about it. All the work is done for them. The integrity of the technology supports the consumer’s devices, and ultimately, in the end, the consumer is really critical to us.
Better Energy Systems has been quite proactive and successful in branding Solio—getting national recognition and MacWorld honors. How did BES go about branding and marketing Solio?

For me to say that we’ve had a big, drawn-out action plan would be stretching the truth. We were a small company; we came over with a very smallish budget to go to MacWorld in order to show the world what we had. I think that, through that process, we’ve learned a tremendous amount in terms of how to position the product for the modern consumer. What we did right from the beginning (which is becoming more and more important in hindsight) was that level of integrity in the product design and engineering phases, which has enabled consumers to be drawn to the brand and say, “This is a company that is truly doing the right thing.” In the earlier days, we had such a huge fan club, a user base—it’s almost like coming from a little underdog with an emerging technology.

I’d say that essentially it was a combination of that early integrity of the brand and the product and the true belief of everyone at the company that many customers’ first experience with renewable energy might be a Solio—so don’t screw it up, because we’ve got a real obligation to that modern consumer. Today we’ve sold more solar systems, albeit small, than any other company in the world. When you think about that personal interaction between a cell phone and an iPhone—I don’t know about you, but my cell phone is a pretty personal device, and when I combine that with renewable energy, we think it’s making a connection and a practical difference, more than just the fact that it’s a little charger. And you’re going to see more and more of that in terms of our next generation products, and from our marketing in ways that we’re going to be tying in. I think the thing that is really great about the market today is that no one is saying, “ Careful what you say, because if we start really spilling our beans in terms of our environmental ideals—if we’re too browbeating in terms of our ideals—it’s really going to turn people off.” Let’s just stay on the track and stay true to those beliefs. We haven’t really changed, but the market has really changed, reaching up and greeting us, which has been awesome.

Building on Solio’s MacWorld recognitions, what do envision will be the next generation chargers? There’s a report out today that the world solar tech market is forecasted to reach $7 billion in the next seven years, up from $1 billion. Does this market growth projection drive technology or a search for new technologies to be applied in the next generation of chargers?

Absolutely. We don’t make solar cells; in fact, we don’t even make batteries. We use the best available, and we apply to it to the best application and the best product. So we have initiatives happening in other parts of the world where different technologies have different properties, and pros and cons.

The answer is yes, and we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on what’s happening and what’s coming around the corner. That goes all the way from solar cells all the way through to what Intel is doing, because we realize that we need to combine what Intel and some of the chipmakers are doing, in terms of their efficiency gains, with our product. I know, for example, that four years from now, my design has to be ready, because the hope is that perhaps in the future one hour of sun will give you more charge time on an iPod Nano (now, one hour of sun will give you over an hour of playtime on an iPod Nano), which would be fantastic. That market’s going to come together, and that’s what we’re shooting for.

We have a companion interview in this month’s issue of VXN with GE’s manager of financial services for renewables. How did you fund your start-up? How you are funding it now?

The model is evolving. I rode the dotcom bubble in the technology stage and was a product of that era where revenue and profitability didn’t make much sense. At the beginning, the model was to get as far as we could in terms of profitability. I invested my own money and other private equity to get to the point where Apple and Vodafone were already paying customers. We were cash-flow positive before we actually took our first round of funding.

We’ve been aligning ourselves with investors and companies that are strategic in terms of their social ideals, as well as in investment. I think that it’s a market and a time where people’s values really need to be in line with their financial objectives. That’s the model that we follow. It might be private equity, it might be VC, but most likely it’s high net-worth individuals or corporations that actually say, “You know what? We need to do things differently; perhaps we need to rethink the standard corporate model.” Flexibility right now is key, being flexible and nimble enough to create companies and ventures within the space that are flexible and focused; there will be ultimate success in that space.

Better Energy Systems is looking at other products and opportunities in Africa. What other activities and markets is your company is looking at?

About two-and-a-half years ago, we became really, really focused and interested in the LED lighting space and the development of that technology, and how it would apply to solar, and what we’re doing with the Solio brand. Myself, in particular, and others in this company, are focused exclusively on developing countries and how our technology can bridge that digital divide. Basically, the goal here is health (in terms of people’s health and safety), education, and being able to help augment the Solio’s strengths as a new technology to offset the effect of kerosene on health and the environment.

So for Million Points of Light we are creating a business model to help proliferate renewable energy technology for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. It’s such a fascinating market because the standard rules of engagement that we’re accustomed to in North America just don’t apply. To give you an idea, today, in many parts of Kenya for example, one can recharge a car battery for 50 cents. They’re also recharging flashlights for 35 cents with LED technology in parts of Kenya. From a financial perspective, the whole triple bottom line—people, profit, planet—it all comes together. Africa is an area of tremendous growth for us. The pilots that we’re already running in Uganda suggest that as well. You’re going to see a lot more in terms of products coming up from us very, very soon. In fact, the Hybrid 1,000—which is our next generation product that we just soft-launched last week—is designed partially with Africa in mind.