Teacher invents solar cell phone charger

Earlier this year, Joshua Zimmerman, a middle school science teacher at Blessed Savior West in Milwaukee and an avid tech hobbyist, developed a product called the Folding USB Solar Cell, a portable solar cell used to charge small electronics.

Without the resources to manufacture the product on his teacher’s salary, Zimmerman took the project to Kickstarter, the increasingly popular online crowd-funding platform. The month-long campaign to fund the project began on April 2, with a fundraising goal set at $5,000.

It didn’t take a month to reach the goal. It only took six hours.

That was only the beginning. By April 23, three weeks into the campaign, total pledges cruised past $125,000.

“I would have been happy with $5,000,” said Zimmerman. “$10,000 was my stretch goal. I wasn’t really looking to do a massive scale – not that I’m unhappy – but it’s just that it was very surprising. It snowballed.”

The Folding USB Solar Cell consists of three small solar cells wired together and connected to a USB port. The initial 5-watt product that Zimmerman used to launch through Kickstarter is designed to charge an iPhone – or any gadget at a similar power level – in three hours. Unfolded, the product is 18 inches by 7.5 inches, and is designed with simple snaps and grommets connected to the black canvas to make it easily portable. Folded up, the product is compact – roughly the size of a Kindle or an iPad mini.

And while a folding charger is not a new idea, said Zimmerman, existing products similar in nature are built to do many different things, but don’t always do all of them well. His goal was to simplify the product without sacrificing quality and keep the price under $100.

“I tried to boil it down to its essentials: USB power, fold, low cost. No frills or thrills, just the basics,” he said.

To bring added use to the product, which, of course, doesn’t work at night, Zimmerman is selling the solar cells along with a Lithium Power Bank, a more common USB-charging product that stores power for later use. The idea here is to charge the Power Bank during the day for use after sundown.

Zimmerman, a former Eagle Scout, sees customers for this product primarily as those who enjoy the outdoors – campers, hikers, cyclists and others who might have better access to sunlight than to wall outlets.

He said customers could also be “anybody who just wants a backup power supply…anybody who needs extra power on the go or is worried about an emergency situation where you might need a little boost of power.”

This became apparent to him after Hurricane Sandy.

For the last two years, Zimmerman has been selling small-scale solar kits that customers can assemble, small-cell solar chargers built with an Altoids tin and other small projects he’s tried out in his classroom. He received feedback from customers who had used the Altoids charger effectively during Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene when parts of the East Coast were without power.

He’s been selling these products through his online business, Brown Dog Gadgets, which he founded in February, 2011. It became apparent to him that there was a demand for larger-scale solar products, so he developed the USB Solar Cell, wiring the initial product himself and eventually working with a Chinese manufacturer for larger scale production.

Zimmerman has been responsive to customer feedback through Kickstarter as well. This led to two additional models of the Folding USB Solar Cell – a 7-watt model with larger cells and a 10-watt model with a fourth cell. The 10-watt model ended up being Kickstarter’s most pledged item, he said.

Zimmerman took the project to Kickstarter largely because of the platform’s low level of risk.

“It seemed like a very low-risk way of testing the market, getting good publicity and raising some money,” he said. “The low risk aspect really did it for me, because if I don’t hit my goal, nobody’s out money, I don’t have to follow through and I’ve lost nothing but my time.”

With the success of the project, Zimmerman is leaving his job as a teacher and working on this and other projects at Brown Dog Gadgets full time.

In addition to the Folding USB Solar Cell, Zimmerman has plans to further develop some of the small-scale kits and other hobbyist-type projects he’s sold on his website and done in the classroom. He then plans take them to teaching conferences with the goal of selling the projects to schools.

“There’s a demand there that’s not being met,” he said. “From my background in teaching, if I can make those supplementary materials and supplies, I can do really well there.”

Zimmerman offers these types of guides and materials and other solar projects on the online hobbyist website, Instructables.com.

“Solar power is nothing new,” he said. “It’s been around for ages. Edison was playing around with solar power back in the day. It’s not new stuff.”

Dan Shafer covers innovation and technology for BizTimes Milwaukee. Send news to him at dan.shafer@biztimes.com or follow him on Twitter @danshaferMKE.

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