Most electronic devices come with cautionary labels warning users against the dangers of opening the box. Fortunately, as a youth growing up in India fascinated by televisions, Raghu Yarlagadda ignored the warnings and looked inside. He built his education, then his career, around his passion for image and video processing. For four years, he worked at Motorola Mobility among the engineers who developed high-definition television technology. In the third year of his employment, he contributed to one of the first wireless set-top boxes for Internet Protocol Television.
But in 2009, Raghu made a return trip to India that would change his life forever. “There is a severe power shortage in the country,” he says. “Every day in the summer, small cities have to go without power for six hours. It’s even worse in villages. To get light, families rely on either candles or dangerous kerosene lamps; to study, children have to sit close to these lamps, inhaling the fumes."
A light bulb went on over Raghu’s head – an LED light bulb. “I realized that it wasn’t a difficult problem to fix,” he says. As a side venture, he developed a green-energy, solar powered LED lantern. By charging it for just three hours in sunlight, families can get seven and a half hours of light for the evening blackouts. “The average family spends approximately $60 a year on kerosene,” Raghu explains. “I priced my lanterns at $25 so that they would be less than half the cost of the fuel.” Environmentally concerned leaders such as Al Gore, Steven Chu, and John Kerry have praised Raghu’s work, but for Raghu, “seeing people use my technology gives me the greatest sense of satisfaction.” On yet another trip to India, “I saw a villager use my lantern as a headlight for a bullock cart!”
Returns for a lifetime
While building set-top boxes and his LED lanterns, Raghu realized that “marketing, finance and strategy skills are necessary to put technology in people’s hands. Formal training in these areas is essential.” Seeking advice from mentors, Raghu heard a common refrain. “They said that opportunity costs of a two-year MBA were more than made up by returns that last a lifetime.” Choosing HBS proved easy. “Talking to students and alumni, I observed that at HBS, the gap between ideas and execution is so small because of the resources available at the school. You have the i-lab, legal advice, marketing advice – everything you need to succeed.”
Among the resources: other talented and motivated students. With section mate Andrew Schwaitzberg, Raghu is developing another entrepreneurial venture involving LED technology. In their model, the company will approach cities in the developing world with what Raghu calls a “win-win” deal: “We’ll replace all your conventional streetlamps with efficient LED lamps for free,” he says. “In return, we get eighty percent of the cost-savings for eight years.”
In his EC year, Raghu, who lives near the campus with his wife, Deepthi, will “test the plan. Can we raise the investment capital? Can we collaborate with a city to try the model?” To find out, Raghu and Andrew will apply for the Rock Accelerator Award and enter the New Venture Competition next year.