Meet our innovators: Sam Crisanti and Ian Ferre
Eureka moment: Using pedal power to deliver cheap electricity.
Hometowns: Sam hails from Windsor, Conn., and Ian from Louisville, Ky.
Majors: math (Ian) and mechanical engineering (Sam)
Dream jobs? Ian: Something where I get to use math to work with green energy…and get to be my own boss Sam: A gig in renewable energy
When exam time rolled around last spring, Case Western Reserve University first-year students Ian Ferre and Sam Crisanti weren’t just sweating over their GPA—the pair had $15,000 riding on one of their finals.
No, they hadn’t taken on some crazy high-stakes bet, but they did get an offer they couldn’t refuse—the chance to forgo a traditional exam in exchange for applying for an EPA grant to turn what began as a simple class project into a power-producing product that could change lives halfway around the world.
Ferre and Crisanti first teamed up in a class called “Engineering for the World’s Poorest,” where they were challenged to come up with a solution to an energy problem in the developing world. They honed in on a technological disconnect—the fact that while cell phones provide the primary mode of connection and commerce in many developing countries, the people that use them often have no access to the electricity needed to charge them.
“The problem itself seemed crazy—how can you use a cell phone without electricity?” Ferre says. “It seemed like a neglected issue—that’s why we picked it.”
In fact, remote rural villagers have to go to crazy extremes to charge the phones they rely on—taking daylong trips by carts into cities where they then have to pay to power up.
So Ferre and Crisanti set to work on a foot-powered pedal device that could drum up enough wattage to charge phones. They spent hours in the university’s think[box] innovation center churning out an actual working prototype. And when they showed their professor their progress, he was so impressed he offered to let them skip the final paper in lieu of applying for an EPA grant to continue the project.
Ferre and Crisanti—now sophomores at Case Western Reserve—won the $15,000 grant and used the funding to refine their prototype under their professor’s guidance and travel to Lesotho, a small, land-locked country entirely surrounded by South Africa, to conduct some market research.
In addition to learning that roosters crow all day long—not just in the morning—the pair learned a lot about their potential customers, including what phones they used and how they used them.
Life without a ready power switch was an adjustment for Ferre and Crisanti. “We went to bed when it got dark, we woke up when it got light out—it’s just living off the sun’s clock,” Ferre says.
The pair returned from Lesotho in January, and, armed with new market knowledge, got to work on a new and improved version of the device. They’re also putting the finishing touches on formalizing an actual startup company—GreenLite Technologies—to carry their idea forward and filing a patent to protect it.
The duo also picked up some extra help from the business world—officially adding college roommate and business finance major Evan Harris to the team in February.
“It’s the coolest thing, making a direct impact on society at such a young age,” says Crisanti of his dual existence as a student-entrepreneur.
Their pedal-generator has already picked up a few wins in local business competition, including the $10,000 first prize at Case Western Reserve's Spartan Challenge, and they’ve entered a boatload more. In April, they also competed for, and won, a second EPA grant, this time for $75,000. They’ll use their winnings to continue to work on the product and head back overseas to conduct more intensive market research in multiple villages.
But it’s also tough—balancing the demands of class and the company. What free time Crisanti, Ferre—and now, Harris—have is spent perfecting their product and pitch. “The balance is difficult,” Crisanti says. “But if you have a passion for what you do, it doesn’t even seem like work. And then, when you’ve got a finished product or company up and running, there’s just an overwhelming sense of pride.”
These student innovators used Sears think[box] to bring their ideas to life and you can too!