Inventor Goes From Taking Finals At William Jewell To Powering Cell Phones In Haiti

Jul 13, 2017

Three years ago, Conner Hazelrigg was a sophomore at William Jewell College, in Liberty, Missouri, when a friend came back from a trip to Haiti. The friend told Hazelrigg that everyone in the island nation—one of the world’s poorest countries—has a cell phone. They just don’t have any way to charge them. Electricity, she learned, was expensive and hard to find.

“I was working an internship, and I was studying math and physics,” Hazelrigg remembers. “And I said, ‘Okay, well, I’ll build something.’”

So began 17°73° Innovation Co., a startup founded by Hazelrigg. The name references the approximate latitude and longitude of Port au Prince, Haiti, where she was inspired to start the company. Soon, a grant from the Kauffman Foundation enabled her to return there with the first few of the company’s “Sunshine Boxes.”

“The Sunshine Box is a solar paneled cell phone charger that's got multiple ports around it to help charge a community of cell phones as opposed to an individual charging station,” Hazelrigg explains. “It's been mainly developed for people in undeveloped nations to use to help become more reliable when needing electricity. So we've developed it to not just be a charging station but also create jobs. So with 10 ports around it, people are able to own this box, go from village to village selling electricity, while also bringing that electricity to people who need it every day.”

Hazelrigg says her box now is in 11 countries—including Thailand, Papua New Guinea and Peru, to name a few—on four continents. While the company is focusing on bringing sustainable power, as well as jobs, to impoverished countries, 17°73° isn’t a not-for-profit. Hazelrigg says the company’s business model focuses on working with churches and other mission organizations that have already formed relationships overseas.

This year, following a receipt of another grant for startups, Hazelrigg says the company has been developing a platform for cash-free payment through SMS text messages that makes the process safer for those bringing the box into neighborhoods and towns—and provides the company a small commission for each transaction.

“We’re not taking a profit because we want to make a lot of money,” Hazelrigg says. “We’re taking a profit so we can do more with the money we make. We take in a little bit of a profit so that if we need to help a community that can't completely fund itself we also have the ability to make sure that they get it and it's not limited just because there's a price tag.”

The company was incorporated during her junior year of college. And while the company has grown, it remains a one-person operation with the Sunshine Box as its only hard product. Now 24, Hazelrigg also has a “day job” working at ShotTracker, another Kansas City-area tech startup. She doesn’t think 17°73° will be the last new project she takes on. But for now, it remains a labor of love.

“I think we just want to get this product out to more places,” she says. “I mean, the problem isn't solved yet, so why would we move on to the next thing?”

Hazelrigg shared additional thoughts on entrepreneurship and innovation as part of KCUR’s Innovation KC series.

On being a math and physics major as preparation:

The math has definitely helped with the finance side of being an entrepreneur. The physics side, you know, with going into sort of a technical aspect of a business being a physicist by trade or background has definitely been helpful when working with third parties to kind of consult on projects so that I know what they're talking about.

On the characteristics of a successful innovator:

I've always been a natural leader. I've always liked to take things pretty much by the horns and go with it. I haven't ever seen myself to be a risk-taker, but I would say that I am. But they've always just been very calculated …. So a little bit of a risk-taker, a leader, and very competitive. Last night some friends and I were just playing ping-pong. It got very competitive, but that was because of me. And so I've just been a very competitive person, by nature.

On advice she would give a college student getting started as an entrepreneur:

I don't know if it necessarily happened to me while I was in college, but don't let anyone tell him or her that they can't do it. There's a lot of barriers already out there in this world for any young person. And we shouldn't try to create more, and we shouldn't try to inhibit someone's imagination because of the things that already exist.

Brian Ellison is a contributor and host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend Missouri. You can reach him at brian@kcur.org or on Twitter, @ptsbrian.