East Liberty startup SolePower catching global attention

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A forward-thinking idea to transfer the kinetic energy of forward progress into cell phone-charging electricity has earned two East Liberty startup founders a spot on Popular Science’s 2014 Invention Awards list.

The New York-based magazine awarded energy generating insole company SolePower the coveted designation in its May edition, which was released Thursday.

SolePower shares the recognition with seven other inventions, including the Titan Arm robotic exoskeleton created in 2012 by University of Pennsylvania mechanical engineering students Elizabeth Beattie, Nicholas McGill, Nick Parrotta and Nikolay Vladimirov.

The Popular Science accolade is the second major award of the year for SolePower founders Matt Stanton and Hahna Alexander, who were recognized in March with the Africa Energy Awards Innovator of the Year honors.

While Ms. Alexander said the African Energy designation has already attracted interest from nongovernmental organizations and mobile service providers in several African countries, Mr. Stanton said both awards serve the larger purpose of spreading word of the company across the globe.

“This is helping people understand there is an alternative to carrying around external batteries and solar panels. This lets the public know we’re bringing energy harvesting from a person’s movements into the marketplace,” he said.

Stateside, the publicity could go a long way toward helping SolePower become a standard accessory to complement the ever-growing wearable technology sector.

“As innovative as we want to be with wearable technologies, until mobile power sources are as mobile as the device itself, we’re still just tethered to the wall and things are no different,” said Ms. Alexander.

The device uses a modified insole to send energy from footsteps to a micro-generator that transfers it to electricity that is then stored in a battery pack attached to shoelaces. It generates enough energy to fully charge a cell phone with a 10- to 15-mile walk. Mr. Stanton said the company is working on strategies to generate more electricity with fewer steps.

Originally conceived as a senior design project in 2012 for the two Carnegie Mellon University engineering students, SolePower made its first strides toward becoming a small business with a round of financial assistance from CMU incubator program Project Olympus.

In 2013, the duo took the concept to South Side accelerator AlphaLab, where they received a $25,000 round of funding that was followed by an additional $195,000 infusion from state-funded early stage investment program Innovation Works and a July crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter that earned them an additional $60,000.

Today, serving as an alumni mentor in AlphaLab’s East Liberty-based robotics and physical products program AlphaLab Gear, SolePower has raised more than $300,000 and is preparing to launch the product nationally in August at the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Salt Lake City.

After going through four physical prototypes created out of Larimer fabrication center TechShop, the company will kick off testing for the final prototype over the next three months, with volunteers taking 20-mile hikes throughout the Pittsburgh area.

With the first SolePower units being built through Beaver robotics manufacturer RoPro Design, Mr. Stanton said the company’s launch is another accolade for the region’s burgeoning physical products sector.

“Pittsburgh is really becoming a hub for physical innovation,” said Mr. Stanton. “For so long after the dot-com boom, apps and software companies have been considered high growth in the region.

“But now with manufacturing becoming a critical part of the economy, thanks to places like TechShop giving access to expensive materials and equipment only large companies could afford before, I think we can expect to see a huge growth in the hardware space.”

SolePower insoles are expected to retail for $150 and will be available at solepowertech.com by the end of the year. For more information about SolePower or about the 20-mile testing hike, email info@solepowertech.com.

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.

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