founder

Amped Innovation Co-Founder Andi Kleissner on Solar Power for Emerging Markets

Introduction

Americans are used to having a constant flow of electricity sustaining their appliances, lights, devices, and more. Here, power outages of a few hours can upend a whole day’s plans. But in some countries, inconsistent electricity is a fact of life. South Africa, for example, is no stranger to blackouts and frequently counters them with power cuts. 

Amped Innovation combats unreliable grids in such countries with affordable, clean solar products that can endure heat, dust, and some water. Its WOWsolar Hub can power a home or business, and customers can monitor and optimize usage with a mobile app. Amped Innovation also offers solar light and TV products. We reached out to co-founder and co-CEO Andi Kleissner to learn more about how Amped Innovation’s products cater to its target market and what she’s learned from her experience at the company.

Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?

Andi Kleissner

It all started as a double dare between me and my co-founder, Kurt Kuhlmann. We’d been consulting on some projects in the off-grid space (solar water pumps and solar charge controllers), which let us bootstrap the business and earn some cash. During that time, we had several ideas on how to design better products for off-grid users in developing countries, where people always seem to end up with crappy products. So we each asked, “Do you want to launch our own solar products? If you’re in it to the end, I am too.” And that’s how it started. I was also spurred into action by climate change, the acceleration of ecological destruction, and the fact that developing countries are disproportionately affected. If not now, when?

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

Who is on your team and how did you come together?

Andi Kleissner

Kurt Kuhlmann is our tech inventor genius at Amped. He had designed novel ultraviolet water purifiers, motor controllers, and affordable medical devices for developing countries. Kurt and I met via Stanford’s Design for Extreme Affordability community. 

Kurt pulled in Dan Matthews as our chief operating officer (COO). (They’d worked together at Microchip and as business partners in Meridian Design.) Dan has a long history of developing unique hardware intellectual property, taking research and development projects from the lab bench into production, and building hundreds of thousands of LED bike lights, cookstoves for homes in Africa, and solar home systems in Africa. He already knew what it takes to build a reliable product for mass scale. 

Nicholas Maina, our vice president of sales, is based in Kenya and came to us from a competitor. He was hungry to lead a sales team, knew the customers in this space, and hit the ground running. 

Kathy Kyne, our head of finance, had run finance teams at several hardware startups and knew what it would take to run the fullstack financial operations backend at Amped and scale quickly.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

How do you adapt your products to the specific needs of emerging countries?

Andi Kleissner

Unfortunately, most solar products sold in emerging markets are cheap, fail in less than a year, and become e-waste. Our mission at Amped is to build affordable solar products that perform as well as an on-grid experience in off-grid areas of emerging markets. 

That has required us to build all our appliances (solar lights, solar televisions, and solar refrigerators) from the ground up for high efficiency. For example, we partnered with a TV vendor in China and replaced its inefficient LED backlighting with our own high-efficiency LEDs. We used an infrared camera to identify several unnecessary power draws on the motherboard and eliminate them, and we sourced the highest transmissivity screens available. By reducing the energy consumption of our TV from 30 watts down to eight watts, we could afford to spend one watt to make our solar TV the brightest on the market. As a result, you’ll see our customers sharing their Amped solar TV with friends and family, watching the World Cup outdoors because the screen is so bright. That is the Amped difference. 

For our newest product, the solar generator, designing it to be “Africa-tough” was an even greater challenge. Most uninterruptible power supply-type solar products out there are designed to be used once a year or less (since power outages are so rare in the US). By contrast, Amped’s customers will use our solar generator literally every day, charging and discharging it fully. They will also use the product in rough-and-tumble ways — they’ll connect the cables backwards, rats will chew through the appliance cables, and monsoon rains might splash on the product. We had to make our product splash-proof, dust-proof, and safe to use in extremely warm and humid environments. We had to do all this while keeping the price down. 

Because we own the entire hardware stack (circuits, firmware, and mechanical design), we were able to build ours with a tenth of the components of our competitors. We also designed it to be easily field-repairable — each component can be replaced for less than $15.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

How can your company fit an impact investor’s investment thesis?

Andi Kleissner

Amped’s mission is to provide universal, carbon-free energy access. Over the next five years, we can save more than 100 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions by displacing dirty, polluting fuel generators with clean solar solutions. Our high-performance, affordable solar products will help the next billion energy users leapfrog directly to solar (skipping fossil fuels entirely).

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What is the biggest lesson you learned from running Amped Innovation?

Andi Kleissner

Product reliability is absolutely essential to rapid scale-up. Over the past four years, we’ve grown and matured our testing protocols, thanks to the efforts of Dan Matthews, our COO. All our products are quality-certified by a third party (VeraSol), but in addition to that, every product cannot even get a serial sticker unless it passes a comprehensive test regimen on the production line in China (including input port power capacity, output port power capacity, runtime checks, and more). We then do incoming inspection for every container of products that arrive in Africa to ensure battery health. All extra efforts we’ve ever put toward testing have always paid off by catching issues before they reach the end users. 

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

How do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?

Andi Kleissner

We plan to grow our manufacturing operations in China, train up additional factory lines, replicate our test equipment setup, and add one more quality control person there. We will grow the sales team in Africa and Asia. Finally, we plan to add one more senior hardware engineer to accelerate development of next-generation solar generators, since we’re already getting requests to serve a new market segment that wants doubled power throughput and battery capacity.

We look forward to seeing where Andi and her team take the company. Amped Innovation is currently raising on Republic.

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About: Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

Léa is passionate about impact investing and sustainability. Prior to KingsCrowd, she worked for Stanford’s accelerator, StartX, helping to select the most promising entrepreneurs. She also led the first award-winning study on the Malawian startup ecosystem. In her free-time, she volunteers to help entrepreneurs in Cameroon, Brazil and Colombia. Léa holds a degree in Anthropology from France and is currently enrolled in the UC Davis MBA program.

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