A windup radio is South African success story Shunned British invention uses a power source that may prove revolutionary

November 11, 1997|By Gilbert Lewthwaite | Gilbert Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Rory Stear's radio is not plugged in. It doesn't have any batteries. But he gives it a couple of turns on a handle built into the set and there's music.

The radio works on what he calls "personal power generation."

It is a windup radio, which will play anywhere, anytime with a few turns of the handle. A 30-second winding will give up to one hour's playing time.

At the heart of the technology is a patented stainless steel constant-force spring in the shape of a figure eight. The winding tightens one side of the spring. It unwinds at an electronically controlled rate that turns a DC motor backward. This generates the electricity to power the radio.

Stear believes this is the harbinger of an entire generation of hand-generated electronics, ranging from computers to toys. Due out next year is a windup flashlight.

"It will be the last flashlight you ever buy," said Stear, 38.

"What we are doing is storing human energy," he said in an interview in his company's headquarters here. "We store human energy, and that's the one thing that's always available."

He sees his South African company, BayGen Power Manufacturing, developing an entire new industry with his "Freeplay" power packs replacing batteries across the range of electronic consumer items.

So impressive are the prospects that General Electric's Pension Fund has bought a one-third stake in the 3-year-old company that it valued at $40 million. GE is heavily involved in the BayGen's research on hand-generated power.

Seed money for the enterprise came from a $250,000 overseas development grant in 1994 from the British government after Trevor Baylis, the British inventor, was unable to interest any firms in the United Kingdom.

Other major investors are Liberty Life Assurance of South Africa, and Gordon and Anita Roddick of Body Shop International, the British-based toiletries chain. Stear and his partner Chris Staines, a 36-year-old accountant, plan to take BayGen public in the United States next year.

Already, according to Stear, they are discussing licensing agreements with manufacturers of laptop computers and toys.

"We are not interested in reinventing the wheel and going into the toy business or computer business ourselves. We would rather license our technology," said Stear, predicting that an even smaller and longer lasting generator will be available by the end of next year. It could be used as an external power pack or be built into items such as battery-hungry toy cars or electronic games.

"It is impossible to see how big this thing can get," he said. "We have the opportunity of building not just a big company, but a big industry."

In a continent where most people do not have access to power lines and cannot afford batteries, it has obvious attractions. In 1996, its first year of production, 200,000 of the radios were sold to major aid agencies at $99 each.

The British government distributed the radios, which have AM, FM and short-wave bands, in Rwanda. They were dropped by parachute into Eritrea. In Liberia, the United Nations installed them at election stations to reassure voters the election was peaceful.

The European Union has given them to farmers in Malawi for an agricultural education program. UNICEF has supplied them to schools and hospitals in Kenya. They were even distributed by the British Red Cross in Bosnia.

But the prototype was bulky, and played for only 30 minutes.

The company has developed a smaller, lighter, longer-lasting AM-FM model it will market to first world consumers for $69. It is already available in the United States through mail order or in stores catering to outdoorsmen. It will be in major retail outlets in the new year.

Stear projects high sales in California where people are "disaster preparedness conscious," adding:

"It's the kind of thing that works when there has been an earthquake. We expect to do pretty well with this El Nino phenomenon. Having been on the West Coast of America, I know there is paranoia there about the weather and that sort of thing."

The idea came to Baylis when he was watching a TV program which blamed much of the spread of AIDS in Africa on a lack of education due to poor communications. He decided to try to improve communications by building a radio that did not need an outside power source.

He presented his invention on a BBC program, which Staines happened to be watching.

Staines remembers the day: April 14, 1994.

At the time he and Stear were in the mergers and acquisitions business, looking for entrepreneurial ideas. "We were probably more open minded to left brain ideas," said Stear.

Said Staines, who has dual South African and British citizenship: "When you see something, you wonder what it would take to put it together. I knew how to raise the money. I had the connection in Africa. I could see the need. It seemed reasonable to attempt it."

He called Stear and told him: "I have seen this guy who has come up with a clockwork radio. It has got to be good for Africa."

The profits from the 500,000 sold radios have been reinvested in the company, which is about to open its second factory here to produce the windup flashlight, which will be introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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