Bringing Light to Rural Communities
Diego Quan Reyes
Diego Quan Reyes, along with his colleagues from TU Delft (Avishek Goel) and Rotterdam School of Management (Sanne Wassink), won the Dutch CleanTech challenge and were runners up at the International CleanTech Challenge held in London. They proposed a novel product – GETI, a smart kettle which uses waste heat from cookstoves (flat metallic plate over wood-fire) to generate electricity that can be used to light up rooms, charge phones and most importantly, has zero emissions. This year they launched their start-up, Quantum Energy and Engineering, with a mission to alleviate the needs of rural communities around the world by developing sustainable and culturally acceptable clean energy solutions.
By Padmini Manivannan, MSc Electrical Engineering and photos by Marieke Odekerken
Diego arrives for the interview with an almost carefree air to him, comfortably slipping into the couch with a friendly smile. Over the course of the conversation I realise, beneath the easy-going spirit, there lies a strong sense of responsibility and a sincere passion to change the norm. The Guatemalan Masters student talks about his vision for clean, accessible energy.
“Through the field of energy, you can improve the quality of life”
“I come from Guatemala where 50% of children are malnourished and we have one of the highest rates of inequality. I don’t come from a wealthy family but I was able to have a decent life because of my mom. She provided me with all the things I needed and always supported me. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve the quality of life for the people that live in harsh conditions. I am particularly interested in finding solutions to the basic needs of life and energy is one of those needs. If you see throughout history, one of the reasons humanity has been able to progress is due to access to reliable energy. Through the field of energy, you can improve the quality of life,” he says with conviction.
Diego is very conscious about the solutions he wants to offer. “I wanted it to be zero emissions, locally accessible and also culturally acceptable, ” he says. Nearly 1 billion people do not have access to electricity and are forced to use primitive light sources. An estimated 5.5 million people die annually due to respiratory diseases and noxious fumes released by candles and kerosene lamps. Moreover, according to the WHO nearly 2.1 billion lack access to safe and clean drinking water. GETI tackles several core problems at once.
The kettle they designed uses the thermal gradient between the cookstove and the boiling water to generate electricity. At present, the prototype can produce enough energy to light up a room for less money than the commonly used candles and kerosene lamps. The kettle, of course, also provides clean drinking water. “Honestly, the idea for GETI came to me in like one night, when I was studying the problem of wood burning while cooking. I knew it was possible but also realised it is going to take a lot of work and I needed to learn more. That Is why I decided to do a Masters here.” Diego came to Delft on a scholarship offered by, ‘Fundación Juan Bautista Gutierrez’, a Guatemalan foundation.
Meeting likeminded people
I comment that meeting the right people that believe in the goal must be very important. Diego had a very straightforward policy to this. “When you have common values, similar ethics and perspective of the world, you have a lot of things to talk about. I met Avishek in a course we took together in our faculty. I had spent more than a year researching biomass technology used in rural in Guatemala regarding their energy needs – first as part of my bachelor thesis and then for a consultancy.” Avishek had also worked with rural communities in India and had researched biomass technologies. “I think I work well in teams - we were six people in total. I think the key to any kind of relationship is to be very clear about your intentions and have shared values. When the team was forming, I was very clear about what I wanted to achieve and what I believed in and people who are attracted by that idea are willing to do meaningful work.”
I ask him if they got any support from the university for the project. He mentions that the CleanTech challenge is offered as a course by the Technology, Policy and Management (TPM) faculty of TU Delft in the third quarter of the academic year. “…We got a lot of exposure and we learnt a lot. We also got feedback from venture capitalists during the challenge. After winning the challenge we approached some professors in our department who also supported us and offered to mentor us.” Diego also wants to improve the prototype during his thesis next academic year. “Avishek and I shaped up our curriculum to support the knowledge we will need for the company and GETI. Our theses are also very complimentary in that regard.”
“If your ethics and values are solid you can stand up for what you believe in. ”
Diego and Avishek are looking to expand and launch their pilot in Guatemala, where GETI can be distributed on a large scale. “We started Quantum Energy and Engineering to improve people’s quality of life, especially the ones in rural areas. The product is cheap, clean and according to the sensibilities of society.” The current prototype works on a scale of a couple of watts, which is enough to light up a room. “ We then want to scale up to a couple hundred thousand to provide enough renewable energy for a family and a community.” He also understands that the people that they are reaching out to are a very vulnerable part of society and the company aims to provide tailor-made solutions.
They turned the problem of distribution of the product into a livelihood opportunity for the people in these communities. “We have local distributors, usually women, who will get a batch of GETIs who will lease it to families in a pay as you go fashion. The local distributors get a part of the income and the rest goes to GETI for more research. This way we can expand and also provide jobs,” he says proudly. They call it the Quantum Hybrid business model.
Highs and lows
Diego path to building a successful product and a start-up wasn’t easy. “I think the biggest challenge was adapting to TU Delft. I failed all my courses in the first quarter because my maths was rusty and I did not have a mechanical engineering background. It was a gruelling period but I managed to get back on track.” Things started to work out gradually. Finding time for working on GETI and eventually starting Quantum took time but Diego knows his strength lies in good planning. “ I also think I am stubborn…in a good way. It is very satisfying to realise that the ideas I had back in Guatemala actually work. We got a sense of validation with our work throughout the challenge.”
Telling a story
I ask him if he calls himself an entrepreneur. “I guess I am in the regular sense of the word” Isn’t it important to convincingly present and tell your story? “Yeah, we practised our pitch so many times, ” he laughs. “We took time to shape up our pitch, and every word is essential. I think it has improved my presentation skills - simplified it in fact.”
Now that he has some experience, I ask him about some qualities that are important but overlooked in the entrepreneurial world. “Hmm...I won’t give a generic answer to that,” he answers resolutely. After thinking a bit, he tells, “People say that you have to sell your idea like it is already a finished product and I completely disagree with that trend of overselling and the overconfidence that comes with it. I guess I’ll call it scientific humbleness,” he articulates thoughtfully. Like a wise man, he says “You only need to fail once for people to stop believing in you.” But most importantly, he stresses, “Have a plan and stick to it as much as possible. Try to recursively improve as quickly as possible. If your ethics and values are solid, you can stand up for what you believe in. ”