Boiling Water and Charging Phones: The Journey of Power Practical

There’s a fundamental need of creating power and light that folks have challenges with every day because of zero or limited connection to grid power or just really inconsistent grid power

Imagine you’re in the middle of god-forsaken nowhere. You haven’t changed clothes in an eternity, meals consist of Clif Bars and those sad packs of fruit leather, and your phone lost its charge days ago — you can’t even snap a picture of the black bear that rampaged through camp and stole the last of your Honey Buns, place emergency calls saving you from certain death, or use Google Earth to find a road back to humanity. Things have gotten so sad that your number one source of entertainment is boiling a pot of water and watching the bubbles dance. The number one thing consuming your thoughts is this: Why did you chose to venture into the vast and unknowable great outdoors, leaving behind the friendly, electronic-filled confines of your home?

Now journey with me through an alternate reality. You’re still in the middle of god-forsaken nowhere. You still haven’t changed your clothes; you still are eating incredibly depressing meals that no sane person would ever eat in the real world. While your number one source of entertainment remains watching water boil, there is hope. Power Practical has created the PowerPot, where you can harness the power of thermoelectricity — electricity produced directly from heat — and use boiling water to charge anything with a USB port. No more dead phone, no more dwelling in darkness without light or sound, and no more wishing for the comforting embrace of your electronics. You can now take pictures of the beautiful surrounding countryside, map your hikes with pinpoint accuracy, or call for help when being ravaged by a pack of wolves. With the aid of Power Practical, you’re never truly off the grid.

“There’s a fundamental need of creating power and light that folks have challenges with every day because of zero or limited connection to grid power or just really inconsistent grid power,” Power Practical CEO Matt Ford said in a recent interview with Beehive Startups. “Our mission is to develop diverse and interesting power options emphasizing diversity and power resources. So we’re not just thermoelectrics, but we want to come up with unique portable power options.”

Power Practical began as a simple idea — wouldn’t it be cool if campers could harness the energy created by fire and use that in a beneficial way? This gave birth to the PowerPot, an actual pot that allows users to cook their food or boil water while simultaneously acting as a portable USB charger. Two birds, one stone. After a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 resulted in the raising of $126,000, Power Practical knew it had staying power.

“I mean that’s the beauty of Kickstarter, where you have this idea, you put it out there, and it kind of vets whether or not this is something interesting,” Ford said. “If it funds that usually means it’s interesting. People like the idea and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Piggybacking on the success of the PowerPot, Power Practical launched a new product called the Practical Meter, designed to maximize efficiency while charging your goods. And yes, I do realize that last sentence had about 40 p’s in it, calm down.

“It’s simply a USB meter that you can plug into a PowerPot or a solar panel or any USB device,” Ford said. “When you plug in a device to charge — like your phone — it shows you how much power your device is drawing. So it gives you real-time feedback. If you think about a solar panel and plugging in your phone, if your panel is flat this meter might show you get two watts of power. But if you tip it and articulate it towards the sun, then it will show three to four to five so you’re able to manage your generator and make it as efficient as it can be.”

Cooking pot that doubles as a USB charger? Check. Meter giving you information on the efficiency of that charge? Check. So what’s the next step? Batteries, of course. Big, powerful, fast-charging batteries.

“So with the Pronto — which is our current campaign — that’s what is novel and interesting in a potentially crowded market of rechargeable batteries,” Ford said. “For most of them the story is just design and then capacity. We take in design, capacity and then the ability to charge really fast. So if you only have five or ten minutes, you can plug this into the wall and it will soak up enough power to then fully charge your cell phone one full time.”

Power Practical has swam with sharks and lived to tell the tale. Not literal sharks — USB charging can only do so much against the predators of the sea — but a panel of investors on ABC’s Shark Tank, the reality television show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas before wealthy business celebrities. Represented by a two-man team, Power Practical did enough to catch the eye of a noted investor.

“So the founder, David, and Caleb, who runs sales — both who are Shark Tank fans — they went and they did an awesome job,” Ford said. “We actually made a deal with Mark Cuban, he now is an investor in Power Practical and is part of the team. We work with his staff on a daily basis to help find new opportunities, help solve problems, and help grow the business.”

Going on a widely-viewed television show has its benefits — unless you’re The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, then everybody just hates you. In the case of Power Practical, their Shark Tank appearance allowed them to connect with different, previously-untapped parties, and realize the need for their product went beyond campers.

“We thought maybe we’d get a bunch of traction, people would buy a bunch of our product online,” Ford said. “It was less of that and more people with interest in emerging markets saw the product — we’ve connected with a lot of folks that are either companies that distribute products, individuals that are connected with government organizations, or NGOs that are actively working on finding solutions for power in Africa or other emerging countries. So as a result we’re kind of in the process of some really interesting partnerships with folks who then take our product to countries like Africa. It’s figuring out how we get our products into these emerging countries where there’s a real need for it.”

Ultimately, whether it’s for campers hanging out in the mountains or emerging nations trying to improve the quality of life, Power Practical provides a solution to a very real problem — getting power to people outside the grid. You don’t have to be Mark Cuban to realize that charging phones with a boiling pot of water is pretty damn cool, and you don’t have to be a scientist to realize thermoelectricity presents certain solutions solar power cannot.

“Solar power is great but you have a dependency that you can’t control, which is sunlight,” Ford said. “If you’re going to Scandinavia, where certain times of the year you only have a couple hours of sunlight, having an option where you can control the inputs is big — meaning you can control creating a heat source like a gas stove and put water in it. You can do it day or night — inside or outside — and you can always create electricity that way.”

Published 2/11/2015

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