Solar Powered Umbrellas Arrive at Emory

New umbrellas on campus are not just simple protectors from the rain and sun — they can also charge your phone.

Three Powersols — solar-powered patio umbrellas capable of charging any USB device — have recently been installed at Emory. The two on main campus located outside Cox Hall and one at the Law School will soon be replaced by newer models.

“Powersol is allowing the universities to put their money where their mouth is on sustainability efforts,” said Cameron Welborn-Wilson, Emory University School of Law alumni,who co-founded ZON Technology, the company behind Powersol. Because traditional power outlets are expensive to construct, she believes Powersol could easily save universities hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Powersol makes it effortless to go green,” she said. “It’s sustainable and fast and free, and the benefit to students and faculty is incredible.”

ZON Technology’s’ first product, Powersol, is an umbrella with solar panels adhered to its ribs. A wire is strung through the mast and connects to a lithium ion battery that powers the charging stations.

It can charge three devices at once as quickly as a wall outlet, and its battery lasts multiple days and nights without sunlight. It is mobile in both senses of the word;the Powersol can be wheeled anywhere.

ZON Technology’s other co-founder, Sarah Akin, was inspired to pursue the innovative idea after returning from a resort in Las Vegas where her iPad continually ran out of battery. Akin was Welborn-Wilson’s former neighbor and knew her for 12 years. She approached Welborn-Wilson with the concept in 2012.

Though Welborn-Wilson had recently given birth and was working part-time from home, she thought the idea was “very, very brilliant” and agreed to do the legal and business consulting to take the concept to the marketplace. With the help of a team of engineers and patent attorneys, they had a provisional patent and prototype within a year. From there, Welborn-Wilson used her experience in entrepreneurship, consulting and in the “big law firm realm” to develop Powersol.

While their original business plan was to sell to resorts, the Powersol found a more immediately enthusiastic market in higher education, which continues to be their largest consumer audience to date. They realized that even though the idea of a mobile solar-powered charging station took time for the average consumer to understand, higher education “gets it.”

“Students don’t need any training or explanation,” Welborn-Wilson said. “It’s like bees to honey.”

In less than 12 months since ZON’s conception, the six-person team has sold about 500 individual units to more than 100 institutions. Welborn-Wilson believes that three factors account for the Powersol’s success: the brilliance of the idea, the timing of an age of sustainability-conscious consumers dependent on mobile devices, and, her team.

“From our engineer to our patent lawyer, to our sales executives to our project manager, to our finance operations and business managers, I don’t think any one of us in isolation could have done this,” Welborn-Wilson said.

However, she is quick to assure that the Powersol faced setbacks in development, especially in manufacturing in China.

“While I have a lot of business and startup experience, I had no experience with manufacturing in China,” Welborn-Wilson said, explaining the differences in business practices, issues with quality control, miscommunication between cultures and a lack of precedent. Now, Powersol is a completely American-made product, a label that she describes as a “badge of honor.”

Welborn-Wilson said she is also proud that, in a primarily male-dominated industry, ZON Technology is not only women-founded but entirely women-managed. Welborn-Wilson hopes that as the Powersol spreads, her team’s experiences will inspire more women to rise up in the business world.

“I’m really hopeful that people will see that you can be a strong woman, you can be a mom, you can be powerful and you can run a company as well as a man,” she said. “And we need more women at the top to continue to pay it forward.”

However, Welborn-Wilson firmly believes that her encouragement only applies to people that are willing to work hard. Tenaciousness, she stresses, is going to be a really important factor for people graduating today, especially for the new generation of business leaders.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen,” she says. “If you can execute, and build the right team around you — regardless of male or female — you really can do what you want to do as long as you’re willing to get a bit beat up along the way.”