I had the privilege yesterday to interview Shawn Frayne, a founder of Humdinger Wind Energy. This being the Internet Age, we didn’t have to wait until we could sit down in person to chat. Instead it was an almost commonplace phone to Skype, to mobile (Skype Forward) call from Seattle to Hong Kong.To my parents, I would say “I interviewed him by phone.”
Humdinger Wind Energy was inspired by Shawn’s discovery of the story of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse of 1940. From seeing video of this historic collapse, Shawn became inspired to try an alternative approach to generating electricity from wind energy. The genesis of the wind belt and subsequent founding of Humdinger Wind Energy Was the result of an initial goal 4 or 5 years ago to create an inexpensive wind generating device to power simple LEDs for lighting, or to recharge cell phones in Haiti. This original goal then evolved to a goal of developing affordable rural lighting and rural electrification solutions.
The genesis for the company may have come out of seeking to do social good, but Humdinger Wind Energy is not a pure social play. They are a for-profit start-up that can stand on its own. Humdinger has already gone through a significant angel round that is enabling it to a technology transfer level.
Implications – Wealthy vs. Developing Countries
Though the wind belt technology has developing country implications, it also has wealthy country uses that they can address through technology licensing to existing energy players. The goals of the organization when fused together are to use revenue from wealthy country applications to fund longer term developing country applications. They are more akin to someone like Motorola developing an inexpensive phone to address low-income customers, than an international development organization. Humdinger has a triple bottom line, but also endeavors to meet traditional company goals of making revenues and profits.
In part to support the different goals for wealthy countries and developing countries, Humdinger has decided to make part of their intellectual property available for educational exploration. One of the purposes of doing that is to treat the wind belt as open source hardware in the developing countries while at the same time patent protecting it in developing countries. Shawn had some of the following things to say about this:
- “We’ve built the system described in the education document ourselves in three minutes.”
- “Hopefully having more people working on it will advance technologies faster.”
- “People were downloading videos and experimenting with the idea itself and a community was starting to develop.”
- “This community inspired us to put out more information than we had previously explored.”
- “So far we have had 1,100 downloads of the document.”
- “To this point we haven’t gotten much feedback other than saying they are excited to work on it.”
- “This approach is also in our best interests because any company seeking to harvest or create energy in a new way has to convince people that the new approach works in order to move out of the fringe.”
We also discussed the open innovation movement and Shawn doesn’t fully agree with the open innovation approach. He doesn’t think that the human species has reached the point where invention is highly social at scale. He believes that optimal invention is still limited to small groups of people working together in person. Also for Humdinger to be financially viable he feels they must have some amount of protection around their ideas in wealthy countries. Here are some more of his thoughts:
- “The problem is not generating new ideas…”
- “There are 1000 different ways to address a problem, the bigger problem is how do you effectively select what to test. You can’t test all the approaches. How do you pull out the right ones to test?”
- ” You still need a small group to select the correct solution to pursue.”
Social vs. Commercial
There are four primary members of the leadsership team: Shawn Frayne, Jordan McRae, Jerry Chun, and Kurt Kornbluth. As they grow, they will likely merge some of their ideas with those of one of their informal advisors (Paul Hudnut at Colorado State University) and create small incubators of 4-5 people (“Virtual Innovation Factories”). These teams will not be together under one roof (the Edison or Dean Kamen approach), they will be dotted around the world and bring the best minds to bear on very fundamental problems (energy harvesting, energy storage, and water treatment).
Humdinger was formed to generate funds over time for this grand experiment. This is not what we are currently doing with the group in Xela, Guatemala. As they are a separate organization that we partner with – we like to call this “Cloud Inventing”.
- “When we talk to the group in Guatemala (we Skype in to see what’s going on at the site and to talk to them), there is a lot of personal contact and we know that they are very good at inventing and engineering, and it is a small group.”
Humdinger is trying to develop a new type of wind cell that is flexible and modular and works inexpensively on a smaller scale that only solar or batteries could have before.
- “What if you could break up a big turbine and split it up into 1000 pieces at the same efficiency ($2/watt)?”
- “Most of the folks we talk to get really excited about this being a fundamental change in how power can be generated.”
Overall it was a great talk and I hope this gives the readers a bit of insight into an example of one of the many hybrid commercial and social good models that we are blessed to have existing during our lifetimes. There are obviously a lot of potential applications for this technology in the wealthy countries – everything from powering sensors to other types of micro-generation. I wish Shawn and Humdinger every success with this endeavor.
Sites mentioned during the conversation that are worth checking out: