Tim Bauer, Nathan Lorenz and Bryan Willson, founders of Envirofit International, a company that delivers clean-burning cookstove technology to the developing world, have been named this year’s Energy and Environment Innovators by The Economist magazine, based in London.
The 10-year-old social enterprise, based in Fort Collins, Colo., was recognized for the global impact of its innovative technology and market-based delivery approach that pioneered the clean cookstove marketplace. Envirofit is the global leader in the design, development, and delivery of high performing clean energy cookstoves that that combat air pollution in developing nations. It has grown from its initial concept in the Colorado State University Engines and Energy Conversion Lab to a small pilot project in India with one stove, and from there on to become a worldwide company with multiple different models and 700,000 cookstoves sold across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
According to the World Health Organization, cooking over an open fire inside the home is the equivalent smoke exposure to inhaling two packs of cigarettes a day. Nearly half the world’s population – 3 billion people – cook over inefficient wood- or dung-burning open fires inside their homes, which contributes to 4 million deaths a year – more than HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
“Indoor air pollution is a scourge that affects millions of people, but gets far less attention than other forms of pollution,” said Tom Standage, digital editor at The Economist and chairman of the panel of 30 judges. “We are delighted to recognize the achievements of Envirofit’s founders in tackling this problem.”
Described as the “Oscars of Innovation,” the awards recognize more than innovative ideas, but also the commercialization and adoption of those ideas as products that can produce immense changes in society. Judges evaluate the nominees on meeting three criteria:
• Impact on an emerging branch of science, technology or business;
• Impact on revenue of the award winner’s sponsoring organization or enterprise, or on general economic or societal well-being; and
• Impact on a marketplace or the establishment of a new market.
Envirofit’s Incubation from Colorado State’s Engines and Energy Lab
Bauer and Lorenz were students of Willson and fellow CSU professor Paul Hudnut in 2003 when they founded Envirofit International as an independent social enterprise. Its mission was to develop well-engineered technology solutions to solve global energy and health challenges that could be made available in the developing world through sustainable market systems. Their first product, funded by the Bohemian Foundation in Fort Collins, was a retrofit technology to reduce the pollution from two-stroke cycle vehicle engines in the Philippines.
In 2007 Envirofit teamed up with CSU to form a long-term strategic partnership with Shell Foundation – an independent charity working across the clean cookstoves value chain since 2002 who brought entrepreneurial thinking, grant funding and extensive business support to help Envirofit build a viable and scalable clean cookstoves business.
To prove the market for scalable clean cookstove solutions, they initiated their first pilot program in India. Together, the team combined global knowledge of cooking cultures from field-based research with state-of-the-art science to design new products, using advanced computational tools, rigorous performance testing, and even developing new metal alloys.
“Envirofit was really the leader in combining modern science, product design expertise, sophisticated supply-chain management, and large-scale sales/distribution networks to ensure that cooking solutions have real global impact,” said co-founder Willson, professor of mechanical engineering.
Focusing on a target market of consumers who lacked awareness about the dangers of indoor air pollution, Envirofit entered the clean cooking sector faced with the challenge of improving the market for clean cookstoves.
“Arriving in India we saw the opportunity to transform a largely fragmented, artisanal, and non-commercial sector through the development of consumer-driven, high quality products with measurable results,” said co-founder Tim Bauer. “Working closely with our customers, we were able to adapt the design of the stove to meet their needs.”
Using a market-based model, the team developed and commercialized high-performing biomass cookstoves that are efficient, durable, affordable, and appeal to consumers. In addition to the aesthetic qualities, Envirofit’s stoves are designed to offer economic, health and environmental benefits, reducing smoke and toxic emissions by up to 80 percent and reducing fuel use, fuel cost, and cooking time by up to 60 percent. The stoves reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by up to 60 percent, black carbon by up to 40 percent. They retail for between US$15-$30, and have a nominal life of five years.
Scaling Clean Cookstoves Globally
In the seven years after the first pilot, Envirofit has expanded globally, selling 700,000 stoves by the end of 2013. Throughout their lifespan, these stoves have impacted more than 3.5 million people, created more than 1,000 jobs, and saved more than 11 million tons of CO2. At the household level the stoves have reduced fuel costs by more than US$96 million and saved consumers 6.3 million working weeks of firewood collection.
“Envirofit is growing rapidly and we plan to sell 5 million stoves by 2020,” said Ron Bills, CEO and chairman of the board of Envirofit, who has been leading the company since 2005. “To support this growth we are currently seeking capital investment for equity/debt for working capital, market expansion, and distribution development.”
Envirofit has established manufacturing operations in China, Eastern Africa, and soon in Western Africa and Latin America. Envirofit has an extensive distribution network in place with partners including Unilever, Tower Aluminum, and Lion Brand Cookware with opportunities for expansion to mainstream clean technologies across households and institutions in developing nations.
Bauer and Lorenz continue to grow the business as vice presidents of sales and engineering respectively. Willson has dual roles as a program director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy), and as Director of the Energy Institute at Colorado State University; he continues to serve on Envirofit’s Board of Directors.
The Economist Innovation Awards will be presented on Dec. 3 in London.