Kit Dobyns ’13 and Folajimi Fowose ’12 won this year’s Big Idea undergraduate business competition, hosted by Entrepreneurship@Cornell in April, from a pool of 100 contestants. The pair walked away with a prize of $3,000 for their invention, which allows soda bottles to be used as light sources in developing countries.
Their entry, known as CapLight, is a LED light, a popular light source, that can replace the cap on a two-liter soda bottle. According to Dobyns, soda bottles filled with water and inserted into the roof are common sources of daytime light in rural communities that lack electricity.
Fowose and Dobyns had the idea for CapLight when they witnessed the shortage of lighting in sub-Saharan Africa firsthand.
“I’ve taken two semesters off to travel in southern Africa and I also grew up going to an African church, so Jimmy and I both have an interest in African culture,” Dobyns said. “The soda bottles filled with water were something I was exposed to in Tanzania. While I was there, I worked on this idea of replacing the cap with a light, and that eventually became our innovation.”
For Fowose, the inspiration to create CapLight came from his experiences growing up in Nigeria, where in some parts of the country, electricity was scarce.
“I lived in Nigeria up until I was about age 13, and even in the parts where electricity was available, it wasn’t stable,” Fowose said. “In the northern parts that are more rural, there just wasn’t any form of lighting at all. Being from there and knowing people there, it directly affects me.”
The water in the bottles scatters sunlight, and though these “liters of light,” as Dobyn called them, are effective during the daytime, they cannot provide lighting at night or on cloudy days. CapLight can replace the cap on soda bottles at night or when the sun is not visible, and it can be powered by solar power, a car battery, a motorbike battery or a household battery.
According to Dobyns, although the product was built with a focus on Africa, CapLight could be used in any region that struggles with lighting problems. However, he argues that it would be most effective in communities that already use the soda bottles for daytime lighting.
“You could technically use it anywhere without electricity, but the one caveat is how culturally acceptable it is to insert a two-liter bottle into your roof in that area,” Dobyns said. “I don’t know that we’re really in a position to expand CapLight to places where they don’t put two-liter plastic bottles in the roof just because some places may not be comfortable with that.”
Carlos Castro grad, an eLab fellow at Entrepreneurship@Cornell and a mentor for the groups that are competing in the event, said that effective business proposals in competitions such as Big Idea require the team to be resourceful and determined.
“To be successful, you need to do whatever it takes. You have to juggle because you’re a student here, and you’re trying to launch an idea or a business, so it is all about being scrappy, very dedicated and committed, while finding a way to get the job done,” Castro said. “Even if you hit a stumbling block or a hiccup in your business, you find a way to get past it.”
According to Castro, Dobyns and Fowose were successful in their proposal due to their high enthusiasm and open response to feedback.
“Their energy was really capturing. They really believed in that idea, and they were able to present it very well through their demonstration,” Castro said. “I think it was a combination of them being dedicated, being open to feedback, and having a product that solved a world problem, and I think people could identify with it.”
This energy allowed Fowose and Dobyns to overcome the challenges they faced during this process — like designing and constructing the technology for CapLight with little prior experience.
“Neither of us are engineers. Though this is something that we’re interested in, we just don’t necessarily have the technical knowledge to develop a product that would be useful,” Dobyns said. “We had to consult a lot with engineers. We had an understanding of the culture and the market, but not necessarily the technology, so that was the biggest gap.”
Dobyns and Fowose said they plan to spend most of their $3,000 prize on manufacturing their product and the rest on developing a stronger organization structure and distribution strategy. In addition to studying the science behind CapLight, the next steps include manufacturing more of the devices to distribute, according Fowose.
“We have to make more prototypes. We only have two of what we have, and also in terms of the technicality of it all, we’ve got to ask a lot of scientific questions,” he said. “We’re an Africana Studies and an ILR major, so in light of that, we’re hoping to further research those questions.”
The team said that the Big Idea competition was meaningful because it allowed Cornell students to address social problems that are important to them.
“The range of ideas was really broad, and I think that it speaks to the level of entrepreneurship that Cornellians display,” Fowose said. “Besides that, it was a learning process, so it wasn’t just us as competitors. We’re hoping that with the funds we’ve attained and the exposure, people will realize that there are ways to effectively create social change.”