Logo: University of Southern California

Lighting the way

How materials science alumnus, Kushant Uppal, brought light to the rural world
By: Kathleen Concialdi
November 09, 2015 —


Intelizon offers portable solar, lithium and ion powered lighting products for use in areas without an electrical grid. Photo Credit: Intelizon

In Chavandi Kalan, a small farming village in Northern India's Rajasthan, women do everything the men do. They milk and care for the water buffalo, and they help in the family farming business while also caring for the children and the home. Women here are the backbone of the community, spending a lot of time in the village fields. The fields lack outdoor lighting, and when the crops are high, fields are often used for private meetings, and, in areas without indoor plumbing, as a natural outhouse. However, without light, villagers are unable to see their surroundings and recognize dangerous people or animals in the vicinity. Quite literally: the cover of darkness invites other, more malicious expressions of darkness – rape and assault.

Or consider another example: a child in West Africa, wanting to study or learn to read in a home without electricity, limited by the 7:00 p.m. setting sun. Candles are inexpensive and provide some lighting for its residents. However, they often don’t provide significant illumination to study comfortably and pose a great risk of fire or explosion.

These are among the many pictures of small village life in places like rural India and Africa, where candlelight and kerosene are often the only source of home indoor lighting, and the lack of electrical grids makes outdoor public lighting non-existent. With poor electrical conditions and a safety risks, how can smaller communities, using unsafe and low quality lighting systems, have light cheaply and safely?

USC Viterbi materials science alumnus, Kushant Uppal (M.S. ’93, Ph.D. ’97), believes he has the answer.

Upon graduating with his Ph.D. under Professor Dan Dapkus, Uppal, who always had an entrepreneurial spirit, knew he wanted to create a business with a significant social impact. In 2006, while working at JDS Uniphase and nearing 10 years in the optical telecommunications industry, Uppal asked himself: “What’s next? Where else can I make an impact?” At a time when solar and LED technologies were being widely implemented in the developed world, Uppal and his wife; USC Viterbi computer science alumna Rupal Fadia (M.S. '95); travelled back to their native India, recognizing a large market opportunity for the introduction of such a technology in rural India and Africa.

After reviewing solar lighting products, Uppal found that the market was flooded with expensive or inferior quality solutions. He knew he could do it better and with the help of angel investors and venture capitalists, Intelizon was born, pioneering new lighting products that combined solar and lithium ion-based LED technologies. Intelizon products range from small LED lamps for home use to solar powered outdoor lights.

But from day one, Uppal and Intelizon faced a challenge: creating and selling lighting to rural markets with no access to an electrical grid, where nighttime light is considered a luxury. Uppal recognized that these communities lacked awareness about his solar powered products. The Intelizon team addressed this problem by introducing village entrepreneurs — village residents who educated the neighborhoods about the products, earned a commission, and encouraged village involvement.

Villagers soon saw a need for the new Intelizon products, but getting them to look past the upfront cost was more difficult. Candles cost 20 to 40 cents (USD) and could be used for one week at a time. Intelizon’s indoor light cost $10 to $20 — an expensive up front cost — and many village residents did not have that much saved to purchase lights. Uppal and his team worked to educate the community and show them that their $20 would last three to four years at a time providing savings with a much safer and reliable alternative.

Photo Credit: Intelizon

Once solar lighting was introduced into homes, children were able to study and parents were able to work after sunset, enjoying a better quality light without the risk of fires. Some households in India were able to generate extra income by working later while residents in Gambia no longer use candles and are proud of the diminished risk of fire and the feeling they are moving forward as a community.

When Intelizon's outdoor lighting products were first introduced, Uppal discovered other challenges, battery theft and heat. The first generation solar outdoor lighting products utilized a solar panel, light, and a lead acid pole mounted battery pack connected by a wire. Not long after units were installed, Intelizon discovered that batteries were being stolen from the unit or they did not work in high temperatures, both situations rendering the lights useless. In response, Intelizon integrated lithium ion battery packs into the lighting unit itself, solving both problems— a solution that Atul Gondkar, a village entrepreneur from Maharashtra, India, says has been the biggest change to his community. Solving this problem gave outdoor lighting the spark it needed and outdoor lighting is now Intelizon’s cornerstone.

Often financed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local community funds, the outdoor lighting provides the community with two things they did not have before: safety and increased productivity. Because of the outside lighting, Uppal says, efficiency has increased, people can work later and women feel safer outside. “People are very safe now; they can actually see what is going on.”

Photo Credit: Intelizon

Erin Moore, a USC associate professor of anthropology, who has studied Rajasthan since 1977, says that in small Indian villages it is common for children not to go to school and if they do, they typically do not go beyond the sixth grade. Children are expected to help with the household and the family farming industry. However, some children are able to go to school and do so by walking to other villages. Professor Moore continues to say that many girls do not go to school because their parents fear for female safety. Outdoor lighting across communities provides children a way to walk safely between villages, and indoor lighting allows them to continue studying once home.

The outdoor lights; called Zonstreet; are gaining acceptance both in rural and urban areas as well as in more developed countries. The Zonstreet light has many applications iincluding schools, office campuses, and farms. Uppal says Intelizon is set to pave the way for a revolution in outdoor lighting, similar to mobile technology, where grid based outdoor lights can be replaced with standalone solar based lights; eliminating the need to lay expensive cables and giving many people across the world access to safe outdoor lighting. 

Intelizon has impacted one million lives thusfar, and Uppal says the goal now is to impact a billion lives over the next decade.