On Sunday night’s episode of Shark Tank, Catlin Powers walked on set with a bold ask: $500,000 for 3 percent of SolSource. The company sells a solar-powered grill that eliminates air pollution caused by smoke.
Powers’ pitch included an interesting backstory. While working on environmental issues in the Himalayas, she discovered that local families burned fuel inside their homes, creating pollution 10 times that of the air in Beijing. Powers quoted the same measurement statistic to Sierra in 2016. Eventually, she created an environmentally-friendly grill that allows for smoke-free cooking while heating at super-high temperatures.
She was now on Shark Tank pitching the product for sale to the mass market in the U.S. Some sharks were reluctant. As guest shark Rohan Oza mused, something did not add up. From its roots in international development, the product was now presented to them as a backyard grill. Lori Greiner, in fact, rejected the product concept for the domestic market simply because most weekend grillers look for that smoky taste.
As it turns out, SolSource is far from a new company. Its founders may, in fact, have luck and chance, as well as the networking skills of people living in Qinghai, to thank for the whole thing starting in the first place.
According to the website of SolSource’s parent company, One Earth Designs, in 2005, a man named Scot Frank went to China to teach an engineering summer program in Beijing. No one showed up, so Frank ended up traveling to another part of the country, eventually bringing his course to Qinghai University.
Two years later, in 2007, Powers arrived in Qinghai to study climate change. There she learned of the troubling indoor air quality many families experienced since they burned biofuels such as animal dung. While working with locals to develop cleaner alternatives, she met a Qinghai man who told her about a Western engineering teacher at a local university interested in the same issues.
The collaboration between Frank and Powers eventually became SolSource. In 2009, Frank appeared in a short film featured on the MIT website, talking about the technology. The project had just received the Yunus Challenge Award, which is given at MIT for projects that help alleviate global poverty.
In 2010, SolSource received the UN-backed SEED award. At that time, the product was touted for its environmental benefits in the Himalayas, specifically reducing the challenges of both toxic air in homes and deforestation, since it eliminated the need to burn wood.
Eventually, SolSource’s mission crossed paths with entrepreneurship. According to an article in the magazine of Harvard’s School of Public Health, the team decided to go a novel route to fund production of the solar cooker: Kickstarter. The original goal of $43,000 was surpassed by $100,000.
At the same time, Powers was using the project as the basis for her doctoral studies at Harvard, which she completed in 2014. According to her LinkedIn profile, Powers has been the CEO and co-founder of One Earth Designs since December 2014. She’s been the co-founder and CEO of OneEarthDesigns.org since January 2008.
Scot Frank’s LinkedIn profile says he was co-founder and CEO of One Earth Designs from January 2006 to November 2014. Since November 2014, he’s been a project manager at Google.
Now, SolSource is listed on two different websites: OneEarthDesigns.com and OneEarthDesigns.org. According to OneEarthDesigns.org, that entity is a 501(c)(3) public charity and in 2012 became a B Corp Certified Company.
On both sites, Powers is listed as co-founder and CEO, while Scot Frank is an advisor.
As for Shark Tank, Mark Cuban offered $500,000 for 5 percent of SolSource. Powers countered at 4 percent and a board seat, which Cuban accepted.