LUMINAID: The Value of Validating a Business Idea

At 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake. The epicenter of the 7.0 magnitude quake was near Leogane, approximately 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital and largest city. The Haitian govern-ment later reported that 316,000 people were killed, 300,000 were injured, and approximately 1 million were left homeless.

Two weeks later in New York City, Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta, master’s in architecture students at Columbia University, were tasked with a project  to design solutions for disaster relief aid as part of their design studio course. In the nearby photo, Andrea Sreshta is on the left and Anna Stork is on the right. Design studio courses within Columbia’s architecture school are open ended and without prescrip- tive assignments, and students are given the freedom to define and execute their projects to a large degree. Both Stork and Sreshta were deeply affected by the Haiti earthquake, and decided to focus their project on redesigning disaster relief aid to better serve people in emergency situations. They had read and heard about the danger- ous conditions in the tent cities erected in Haiti to provide shelter for homeless people. It occurred to them that light—something we take for granted—is often unavailable in emergency situations. They also learned that more broadly, 1.6 billion people across the globe lack ac- cess to reliable electricity. Many of these people use kerosene lanterns to light their homes. This is dangerous, in that kerosene lamps are a fire hazard and produce toxic fumes.

The convergence of these two factors led Stork and Sreshta to the idea for their project—something they nicknamed the “solar pil- low.” The idea was to create a simple, affordable source of light that could be easily and affordably shipped to disaster locations. As part of their research, Stork and Sreshta looked at the small-scale solar products currently on the market. There were many, which prompted them to ask the question “Is there a need for another product in the mix?” The answer ultimately was yes, largely because many of the existing products, while useful, could not be easily and affordably shipped to disaster locations. Stork and Sreshta’s solution was an inflatable plastic bag, about the size of a small pillow, that had a rectangular pouch in the middle. The pouch con- tained a solar panel, three LEDs, and a rechargeable battery. When inflated, the bag became a diffuser for the LED light. Because the solar pillow was inflatable, it packs and ships flat. That provides it an advantage, particularly in a disaster situation. For every eight flashlights packed in a box, a total of 50 solar pillows could be placed into the same container. once set in the sun for a few hours, the solar pillow could produce a substantial amount of reliable light.

A second factor that was part of Stork and Sreshta’s thinking is a principle they called “here and there.” The same product—the solar pillow—could be used by someone who is camping or pursuing any form of outdoor recreation as easily as someone in a disaster situation or a developing country using the solar pillow as an alternative to a kerosene lantern. That facet of the device provided the solar pillow a more robust market than a product designed exclusively for a disaster situation or to be used in developing countries.

The design studio class eventually ended, but Stork and Sreshta couldn’t let go of the solar pillow idea. Through the summer and fall of 2010, they entered their idea, now called LuminAID, into several business plan competitions. They also shipped 50 early prototypes of the device to places like Haiti, ghana, and Nicaragua for feedback and advice. They continued to work on the device while finishing school. During that time, the initial prototype  evolved to reduce the cost, make it more durable, and brighten the light. In November 2011, Stork and Sreshta launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign titled “LuminAID: An Inflatable Solar Light.” The campaign included a short 2-minute, 51-second video that explained the device and the entrepreneurs’ passion to bring it to market. If you’d like to see the video and hear directly from Stork and Sreshta, simply go to and type in the search bar “LuminAID.” The goal of the Indiegogo campaign was threefold: test interest and demand for the device, raise money for the initial product run (assuming sufficient interest existed), and get feedback and advice. one thing that is helpful about running an Indiegogo campaign (the same is true for Kickstarter) is that anyone can write a comment about the campaign, during and after the campaign is concluded.  Stork and Sreshta’s campaign generated over 500 comments, some of which were helpful to them in tweaking the LuminAid device. The campaign was a hit, raising $51,829, more than five times the original goal. Stork and Sreshta were not only heartened by the overall response, but were pleased to see pledges come in from several developing countries. The pledges from the developing countries, in particular, affirmed in their minds the potential for their device.

Stork and Sreshta managed a successful production run of the LuminAid device and fulfilled their Indiegogo commitments. They used the shipping of the devices as another opportunity to obtain feedback. The e-mail they posted on Indiegogo when the devices were shipped was addressed to “Dear Friends.” In part, the e-mail said “When you receive the light, we would greatly value your feedback. This is our first manufactur- ing run and your comments will help us to improve the product and develop additional products.  Please e-mail us at with questions or suggestions.” After providing instructions on how to use the LuminAID device, the e-mail ended with: “We included instructions with each LuminAID. Feel free to email us if you have any questions and don’t forget to send us pictures and stories of the LuminAID in use.”

The Indiegogo campaign concluded in late 2012, and the devices were shipped in early 2013 to over 25 countries! LuminAID is now moving forward, but at a measured pace. Stork is working on LuminAID full time, and at the time this feature was written, March 2014, Sreshta was an MBA student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Upon graduation, she plans to work on LuminAID full time. The LuminAID device is now available via the company’s website,, LLBean, and several similar outlets. Stork and Sreshta have and are continuing to establish partnerships with relief agencies to utilize the LuminAID solution in disaster situations and in devel- oping countries.

Source: Barringer Bruce R, Ireland R Duane (2015), Entrepreneurship: successfully launching new ventures, Pearson; 5th edition.

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