Amal Kabalan, an Electrical Engineering PhD Candidate, and her team of three other students from Monroe College and Elizabethtown College took top honors in a best green-business plan competition that transcends traditional entrepreneurship, held in Washington D.C. in August. Their concept of energy-storing book bags, called Solar Brite Backpacks, won a Presidential Grant for best socio-economic business idea at the World Bank Athgo Global Forum.
"Winning the Presidential Grant was rewarding. It gave us more drive to pursue our idea because when you think of an idea, it is just an abstract concept, but when you receive support from entrepreneurs and scholars, it becomes a reality," says Kabalan. Athgo International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing students with the knowledge, resources, and support needed to launch a constructive entrepreneurial business plan. It encourages innovation that focuses on both profit and social responsibility, with programs reaching from the United States to Europe and Asia.
The idea for Solar Brite Backpacks fell into Kabalan's lap when she read an article about the economy of Guinea. Within the article, she learned that the availability of electricity for students is scarce. In many cases students rely on streetlamps to complete their homework. "This made me think why should students who want a primary education face so many troubles? I told myself that the solution to this problem is not difficult," says Kabalan. Students in Guinea walk to and from school every day, and during this time the sun is shining. "Why not use solar energy and convert it to electrical energy to be used in lamps?" Kabalan questioned herself.
Solar Brite Backpacks leverage solar panels connected to specialized backpacks. As students travel to school, the panels collect solar energy, which is then converted into electrical energy and stored in a battery that can be used to power a light bulb back at home. Solar Brite Backpacks will allow students to stay safely inside instead of working outdoors at night or waiting for the headlights from cars to pass over their books so they can read the next line.
According to the stipulations of the World Bank Athgo competition, the winning business idea must embody both social responsibility and self-sustainability. "Only one in eight people in Africa has access to electricity, so there is a market available for business," says Kabalan. Although the knapsacks may cost $130 to create, Kabalan and her team are working on decreasing the price and point out that government agencies or nonprofit organizations could absorb the costs as education expenses. Kabalan plans to stay connected to her teammates via Skype in order to meet their goal of creating the first Solar Brite Backpack by the end of the year. "The usages for solar energy are infinite, and the market for it is growing exponentially with the continuous decrease in the price of solar panels," she says.