Two tablespoons of salt and a glass of water.
That is all you need to run SALt, short for Sustainable Alternative Lighting, the lamp developed by computer engineering graduate turned entrepreneur Aisa Mijeno.
The idea came about when Mijeno quit her job to volunteer and travel. Affected by her Kalinga foster family’s story of trekking six hours to Bontoc, the nearest town, just to buy kerosene, then trekking another six hours back, she wondered if there was an alternative way to fuel a light source, especially in rural areas.
“The eureka moment came when I got back from my immersion,” she said. “That’s when I started experimenting using tools available in the school (the De La Salle University, where she teaches). Fortunately, I’m part of the academe so I get to use the laboratory for free.”
The science behind SALt lamp has existed for a hundred years. “That’s also my question: why did people deviate from using something as basic as saltwater as a means to generate electricity,” Aisa said. “When you think about it, it’s battery [technology],” she said of how she developed the lamp. Energy is created when metal electrodes are submerged in saltwater, acting as electrolyte.
Setting up the business
Mijeno set up SALt with her brother Raphael who serves as its chief financial officer, to bring the technology to rural areas without access to electricity. Raphael was recently listed in Forbes' 30 Under 30 Asia as one of the young social entrepreneurs in the region,
In 2014, IdeaSpace, a startup incubator, provided them with P500,000 ($10,524.26) in seed money to further develop the lamp. This led to winning local and international design competitions, as well as features in local and international publications.
SALt is working with Biñan, Laguna-based EMS Components Assembly Inc. as their manufacturing partner. “They mainly assemble [electronics] components; it’s going to be their first time to box-build, meaning from scratch to the final product,” Mijeno said.
Breaking down the lamp
The lamp is made up of several components, including four 1-watt LEDs (light emitting diodes) and a USB port, which can be used to charge mobile devices like cellphones and smartphones.
The light is bright enough to read by. “The requirement for reading is 62 lumens. We have hit 70 lumens,” Mijeno said. “Without LED technology, we wouldn’t have done that. It’s low-power, but its brightness is [on a] par with high-powered CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) bulbs.”
Although they have a prototype already, Mijeno said that they continue to tweak the lamp to improve its performance and come up with new applications. “We’re still developing the technology until today,” she said.
Rolling out the product
Still, they are set to distribute the lamps to their target market. “Pre-production is now at 20,000 units, with mass production next year after we evaluate field tests,” Mijeno said. Based on existing specs, the lamp will retail for less than P1,000 ($21.05).
The initial units will be donated to communities in Kalinga, Oriental Mindoro, and Iloilo. “Field test [will] also [be conducted] so if there are any problems with the design, we can still tweak it before getting it to mass production,” Mijeno said. She added that they will also be releasing a model for the outdoors, like for mountaineers, so it is more rugged. “It’s a bit more expensive, of course, but the ones we’d donate is basic plastic since it won’t be brought out all the time, it’d just be put on a table,” she explained.
Mijeno is bullish about the technology and its future applications. “Your only limit is your imagination on how to put the application in the core technology.”
She added that they are thinking of developing portable flashlights that are disposable, like when it is flooded, you can use the floodwater and it would already light up. “We’re trying to separately develop a charging functionality. What’s good is, we’re not just talking about scaling the market…we’re also talking about scaling up the technology. We’re also studying powering large generators so it can power a coastal home using ocean water,” she said.
“Forty years ago, solar power was only used to power calculators and watches. After 40 years, we already have solar panels, so I can only imagine what can happen after 40 years,” she added.
Yvette is a lifestyle writer and award-winning horror author. She is working toward a world where it is permissible to wear flip-flops to a board meeting. Follow her on Twitter, @yvette_tan.
This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.