Pay it Forward: The Power of Innovation
When Patrick Murphy and his Collingswood, New Jersey high-school friends Jason Halpern and Andrew Leonard founded their off-grid energy startup, Gridless Power, the trio envisioned creating a technological solution to global problems in areas of energy insecurity.
“The mission with the company was always to create a big, positive impact, and we saw the opportunity to help in disaster situations,” Murphy said. “In these remote situations, a tiny bit of energy is powering something that can save a life. It was easy to focus on those high-impact situations.”
Starting with a plan for a modular, rapidly deployable solar device that was designed for use in areas with unstable or nonexistent electricity, Gridless soon shifted its initial focus from energy capturing to storage and deployment. The flagship product, the Gridless CORE, is a ruggedized “smart” battery with geolocation, power distribution, and performance monitoring functions. What it’s been able to do in some of the world’s most demanding environments is provide a necessary lifeline for lifesaving outreach.
To date, Gridless has seen its most extensive medical deployment in relief of earthquake victims in Nepal. Since April 2015, UNICEF has relied upon the Gridless CORE and a handful of solar panels to keep communications and medical equipment in the field up and running. That on-demand power is essential in an area that lacks significant infrastructure and the means to connect it to the devices that guide people struggling during the aftermath of an environmental disaster.
“They don’t have power,” Murphy said. “There’s not much infrastructure. If they’re lucky, they have a generator that they tie into.”
In Liberia, the Gridless CORE was deployed with a group called the Liberian Energy Network during the Ebola virus outbreak of 2015. Circumstances on the ground were fragmented, Murphy said, with hospitals either powered intermittently by generators, or not at all. The Gridless CORE was used to help create what he described as an ersatz “nano-grid” comprising solar panels, the battery system, and the medical devices they powered.
“This is not an emergency, it’s 24-7 operation,” Murphy said. “If they have the power grid [operational], the battery charges; if they have the sun, the battery charges off the sun.”
“The situation before, if someone got into a motorcycle accident at night, they were doing the surgery by cellphone light,” he said. “So even that basic level of lighting provides a huge increase to the quality of care they’re able to provide and the amount of care they’re able to provide.”
For the group of longtime high-school friends, lending a hand in international relief efforts was exciting, Murphy said, and the fledgling company still has room to grow. The CORE is assembled in York, Pennsylvania with American labor, but after having set up shop only a few years ago, Gridless is still working to expand its installation base.
“We had to pick our battles in terms of where we could go and provide power,” Murphy said. “We had a meeting at the U.N., and they asked if we could deliver 1,000 units in a week, and we had to say no. We’re starting to be able to build the infrastructure so we can stock them now.”
Sales of the units to local Offices of Emergency Management (OEM), non-governmental organizations, and other, larger buyers who require off-grid power have been brisk, Murphy said, but the company is also seeing growth in its rental business that he said will enable Gridless to provide more on-demand power on a temporary basis in the wake of an emergency.
“Now we’re turning the corner on the medical side, and starting to get involved in the ways that medical personnel respond in the event of an outage or deployment,” he said.
Domestically, the Gridless CORE has been deployed in various circumstances, often just because Murphy and his team were proximate to the disasters. During Hurricane Sandy, the units helped power OEM first responders along the Jersey shore. After an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia in early 2015, Gridless offered its units to the American Red Cross, who used them to power cellphones in a triage area so that victims of the crash could contact their families. After Amtrak saw how valuable the technology was, it placed an order for COREs of its own. Next up for Gridless, Murphy believes, are home health care and hospital deployments.
“We know hospitals are pushing more life-sustaining equipment to the homes,” he said. “Before, you just had to back up power in the hospital; now there’s an entire network of people in recovery centers who have all this equipment and virtually no back-up. They might have an hour or two in the devices, but if the power goes out, they’re in trouble.”
When home health care devices are threatened in a power failure, it creates a huge infrastructure burden on communities, Murphy said. City workers in Bayonne, New Jersey have told him that every time power is threatened at the home of a resident with critical care equipment, the local government dispatches $900,000 worth of assets to respond; the cost of an idling fire truck with a power line and police to divert traffic at the scene.
“We started going into medical equipment because first responders were powering breathing machines, suction, anything you would find in the back of an ambulance,” Murphy said. “Right now if they have equipment that they need to deploy, they will sometimes use a generator. But when you’re on the scene, noise is a huge issue; starting the generator is sometimes a huge issue.”
By comparison, the Gridless CORE, which does not run on a combustible fuel (and therefore produces no noise or exhaust) makes a necessary difference. Murphy believes that whether domestically or overseas, a power solution that enables first responders to perform their duties with greater ease of access and less corded tethering can have a significant impact on the level of care delivered.
“There’s a lot of people trying to help and solve problems,” Halpern added. “If we can make power something that those people don’t have to deal with so they can do their jobs, it’s something we’d love to help with.”