I
nside a converted row house built in early 20th century New York City, the BioLite team is striving to bridge a gap between the pre-industrial world that once was and the tech-driven culture of today. On display in their Dumbo headquarters, amid a number of awards and framed publication printouts, is every product they’ve ever made, beginning with the biomass-burning CampStove prototype and its immediate successor — the exact model that won the 2008 ETHOS Clean Cooking Conference. Surprisingly, these first few models lack one of the company’s most shining features: the USB outlet, which allows users to charge mobile phones and tablets outdoors. But this “aha moment”, as their Director of Marketing Erica Rosen calls it, would come shortly thereafter.

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BioLite has grown into one of the top-selling stove manufacturers in the U.S. and currently sells its products in 75 countries around the world. On the consumer level, much of what’s said about BioLite is directed toward this ability to charge phones and other electronic devices. No one questions the integrity of this achievement. But often missed is what lies beyond this reputation as the iCamp stove maker. “Lots of people like to look at us as that thing that charges your phone”, Erica Rosen says. “But clean combustion is really at the heart of what we do.”

Most of the stove testing is done in the burn lab, tucked in the far left corner of their two-storey office. On first impression, it’s a clutter of charred and tossed stoves, industrial power tools, with product blueprints hiding behind original watercolors that adorn its walls. The artist is Ryan Gist, who also happens to be BioLite’s senior combustion engineer. As he fires up the brand’s newest BaseCamp offering, Gist goes through the inner workings of the clean combustion energy technology, starting with the why.

Open fires are messy, says Gist. The smoke is indicative of the well of untapped energy there that could be captured and repurposed instead of releasing harmful toxins into the air. BioLite’s aim is to reduce those emissions by converting this energy into some usable form (to charge mobile devices, for example) by means of a thermoelectric generator.

On first impression, it’s a clutter of charred and tossed stoves, industrial power tools, with product blueprints hiding behind original watercolors that adorn its walls.

“The simple principle is called the Seebeck effect”, Gist says, then describes the process by which two different metals of different temperatures are joined together, transferring electrons between them to generate electricity. “The elegance of [the stoves’] design is that the same air that cools the modules gets preheated and later injected into optimal parts of the fire, producing clean, highly efficient combustion.”

This is the underlying process in all of Biolite’s products; it just happens on different scales. In the HomeStove, born of BioLite’s research on traditional stoves of Africa and India, for instance, there’s a bigger flame and therefore more energy. And though the company could surely be happy with their number of end products, the social dimension of clean energy from a renewable resource such as wood lends itself to a much wider scope they’re eager to be a part of.

“Half of the world cooks on smoky open fires”, says co-founder Jonathan Cedar. “When Alec and I found out that pollution kills more people than HIV, Malaria, and Tuberculosis combined, we knew that our technology had great potential to help.” These two have defined their company as a “social enterprise”, a capital venture born from the desire to impact the world in a positive way. At times, they’ve been the victim of reckless criticism because of this model. But like any social venture, they believe profits help transform ideals into actualization. “We take a market approach”, says Cedar, “because capturing the interest of our users directly is the fastest, most durable path to social impact.”

They’ve also relied on a theory they call “parallel innovation”, where products are marketed and sold in both developed and more developing countries, helping to balance the increased investment required in the latter. This approach has attracted the attention of universities and festivals around the country, where Jonathan and Alec are often invited to share their creative business model and what’s come of it.

It’s difficult to ponder what’s next for a company with their kind of global reach. According to Jonathan Cedar, however, there’s a lot of work left to do. These small steps into off-grid communities have only exposed the desire amongst remote, less-developed communities for the same access to “life-improving goods and services”.

In terms of upcoming gear, Cedar could only reassure that their vision has “broadened beyond cooking and charging”. If BioLite can churn out anything with the environmental and technical significance of their current offerings, it’s a sure bet the company will surpass the standard they themselves have already set.