Duron: How to Sell Plug-&-Play Solar to Rural India

A startup based in Bangalore, India, is selling an off-the-shelf device for less than the cost of a one-night stay in an average hotel in downtown San Francisco that can offer rural Indians a way to generate and store solar power, charge cell phones and other appliances, and run a set of LED lights. The startup is 2-year-old Duron, and the device, also called the Duron, retails for about 5,999 rupees, or around $130, John Howard, Duron’s co-founder and president, explained to me on a Skype call interview.

The price point might seem ridiculously low for a device that can fundamentally change the way a family uses electricity, replace dangerous and dirty kerosene lamps, save customers money on electricity costs, and help small business entrepreneurs. But it’s high enough to create a solid business out of. And Duron has attracted an undisclosed amount of funding from investors that know how to make a profit: Bill Gross’ Idealab, David Gelbaum’s Quercus Trust, and Solgenix.

The price is also not all that cheap considering that the targeted customer makes on average between $400 and $4,000 per year in income. That’s one reason why Duron is in the process of adding in a microfinance component, where customers can take out a small loan to purchase the system.

The idea to build such a device — a plug-and-play package that includes a 5-watt solar panel, three wide-angle LEDs, a cell phone charger connection, and AC grid charger — came about in mid-2008. Howard, a Caltech grad (Gross also hailed from Caltech), and his early team began conducting research on a business idea for clean power in the developing world, and by the fall of 2008 had set their sights on an inexpensive solar home system.

When fully charged, the Duron offers three hours of bright lighting or 10 hours of dim lighting, and requires about a day of sunlight to charge the system. Eventually the company is looking to develop other energy-related products, but it’s currently focused solely on the Duron. (It also recently changed its name from Distributed World Power to Duron.)

Like startup D-Light’s solar lighting products, Duron’s device could do a lot of good by replacing the use of kerosene lanterns at night. Amit Shah, Duron’s VP of Operations, explained in a company blog post that one family who tested a Duron for a week quickly realized the benefits, and the children could more easily study at night, the mother could cook at night, and the neighbors could socialize at the house, without the smoky kerosene lamp.

Teachers, organizations and small businesses are common customers, given they can use the tool for their work. For example, schools can offer night classes with better lighting. Howard also tells us that more than half of Duron’s customers have some form of access to the grid, but that access is oftentimes unreliable and sporadic, so the Duron can make their power much more consistent.

Currently Duron is focused on selling into two of the bigger states in India — Uttar Pradesh in the north and Karnataka in the south — with plans to scale up the company throughout 2010. Howard tells us that the company is currently selling on the scale of “a few thousand devices per month” and has partnered with NGOs like World Vision.

The biggest hurdle for the 13-member team is the simplest: just doing business in rural India. Howard, who moved to India less than a year ago, has been heads down figuring out the landscape and how Duron can ramp up sales and expand throughout India and beyond. 2010 is a big year for the young firm and we’ll check back with the team later on in the year.


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