U of T alumnus Olugbenga Olubanjo one of 15 finalists for $1.7-million Earthshot Prize
The clean-tech startup created by the recent graduate in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering’s department of civil and mineral engineering is one of only three finalists in the “Fix Our Climate” category, according to a recent video announcement made by Prince William.
The Earthshot Prize was launched last year by the Duke of Cambridge, with plans to award five winners every year for the next decade.
“Over half a century ago, President Kennedy’s ‘Moonshot’ programme united millions of people around the goal of reaching the moon,” Prince William said. “Inspired by this, The Earthshot Prize aims to mobilise collective action around our unique ability to innovate, problem solve and repair our planet.
“I am honoured to introduce the 15 innovators, leaders, and visionaries who are the first ever Finalists for The Earthshot Prize. They are working with the urgency required in this decisive decade for life on Earth and will inspire all of us with their optimism in our ability to rise to the greatest challenges in human history.”
In Olubanjo’s case, Reeddi’s portable and rechargeable batteries, powered by solar charging stations, support people living in parts of the world where energy infrastructure is unreliable. Rented for $0.50 a day, the units provide affordable and dependable energy to those who would otherwise unable to obtain the service.
Over 600 households and businesses now receive clean electricity via Reeddi’s product every month. The company has a goal of serving 12,000 new households and businesses monthly by the end of 2021.
In advance of this weekend’s live announcement U of T Engineering writer Phill Snel recently caught up with Olubanjo to ask him about being a finalist in the global competition and what’s next for the company.
What was your reaction to being nominated for the Earthshot Prize?
We were very excited about the nomination. It’s a reward for years of hard work that our team here at Reeddi has put into unlocking a model that seems impossible in a challenging business environment.
We are very happy to see how far we have come as company in order to be recognized for such a prestigious award. We’re even more pumped to leverage the support from the award to scale our innovation and accelerate it’s impact in more energy-poor communities and regions.
How have perceptions of your company changed over the years?
The progress has brought good credibility for the company. People who had originally questioned our model are starting to see something there. We have also learned quite a lot, operationally speaking, about what to do, and not do, as far as operation and innovation is concerned.
It’s a challenging journey with a lot of highs and lows, but we are excited about being able to walk through the early prototype period to where we are today. We have built a solid reputation now and people take us more seriously because of some of the visible results of our innovation and progress. We are still just starting to establish ourselves and have a long way to go.
What’s the transition from inventor to manager been like?
It’s been a lot of learning. I guess that is one of the things I love most about innovation and technology. As the company scales, the founders and founding team have to increase their combined knowledge and managerial capacity to sustain the venture’s growth.
There has been a lot of reading, seminars, trial-by-error learning and mentorship from experienced advisers. Our focus is to build a solid operational system that will effectively scale our product and facilitate allied business opportunities. It’s not been an easy journey.
I think the beauty of growth is that it’s fulfilling. You know you are not who you used to be – and you are better than who you are last month in knowledge and capacity. Also, we are lucky to have smart, motivated and dynamic team members who work tirelessly and are very passionate about scaling and accelerating the impact of our innovation.
Reeddi operates on two continents with very different time zones – North America and Africa. How do you manage?
I guess my internal system has normalized that – it has always been the case when we started the company while I was a student at U of T. So, I guess it’s pretty normal now. The operational systems we have in place makes things run smoothly as a company.
What do you hope to do if Reeddi wins the Earthshot Prize?
The funding will be leveraged to build and optimize the hardware and digital infrastructures required to scale our innovation and accelerate its impact to more communities and regions.
How did your U of T Engineering education prepare you for your current role?
From clear communication to research, I left U of T equipped with essential and excellent skills needed to run the firm. We do a lot of communication, analysis, forecasting and research at Reeddi, which are skills I picked up at U of T.
What advice would you have for students considering an entrepreneurial path at U of T?
Just do it. If you are interested in anything, then chase it. In the failure comes the victory. When we started Reeddi as an idea, we had people tell us it’s a joke. But we believed in ourselves and pressed on. These same folks celebrate us today. So, damn the uncertainties and just go for it. The beauty of entrepreneurship is even if you fail, and things don’t work at the time, you are equipped with some practical skills that cannot be learned by just reading. It scales the way you think by default and changes the way you approach anything and everything.
We are working on a couple of allied innovations that will leverage some of the exciting infrastructure we have built to scale Reeddi. We are aware this is a long-term play and are seeing a couple of allied innovations and opportunities we are positioning ourselves to capture. We plan to scale our innovation globally and we are very excited about the numerous opportunities that lie ahead.