About a year back, Wali Zaidi approached his buddy Chris Belcher in the parking lot at work with a crazy idea: Let's change the world.
Sure, Belcher said. No problem.
They got Zaidi's brother, Sammy, involved too.
So the three of them set off with only a vague idea of how they were going to solve one of the world's most pressing humanitarian problems. And then they went about doing it.
"We know if we can get these people started we could see so many improvements in their lives," Wali said.
Belcher and the Zaidi brothers are engineering students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Sammy's a junior who's focusing on mechanical engineering, and Wali and Chris are both seniors who focus on electrical engineering.
Their professors have always encouraged them to get involved in outside projects. Look at the professional organizations, the professors said.
So Wali was looking into what the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers had going on. It turned out, the group was holding a contest, along with the United Nations Foundation. It was called the Humanitarian Technology Challenge, and its goal was to use technology to solve one of three major problems in the developing world: reliable electricity, reliable communication between health centers, and reliable health records.
Dozens of teams from universities all over the world spent months coming up with ideas, designing projects and entering the contest. In the end, there were more than 50 entries.
A team from Delhi University in India took third place with a project about alternative energy sources
A team from a university in Dresden, Germany, took second place with something called a "Medicooler."
Guess who won first place last month.
The Zaidis and Belcher shared a $5,000 prize for the first place win. But they're not done. They said they will use the prize money to actually develop their project design into something real.
What they designed is basically a personal solar power device. It would be pretty small and easy to install and maintain. It would generate enough electricity for a few light bulbs, a fan, maybe a small television. You could put two or three or several together to run a larger operation, such as a small store or a health clinic.
They figure it would cost about $1,700 to build one. If the units ever get into mass production, that cost would almost certainly drop. (Scientist types call this economy of scale.)
This would be a big deal in places across Africa, or in Pakistan, or other sun-soaked areas with huge rural populations that either aren't connected to a sophisticated power grid or the grid is so unreliable they may as well be unconnected.
The team felt like they had a solid background in solar energy. UNLV has been focusing on that area, even adding a solar energy minor to its curriculum last year.
They started by researching what kinds of problems there were to fix. Turned out, electricity is a huge problem in the developing world. It's hard to open a business in some village, say, when you've never even seen a light bulb.
And it also turned out that many of the world's poorest countries just happen to be in spots that don't have huge rivers, so hydroelectric power is difficult. Wind can be unreliable in those places, too. But, there happens to be lots and lots of sunlight in those places.
"We felt we had the edge," Wali said.
They've also latched onto a concept called microfinancing. Most folks in those developing countries don't have $1,700 laying around to buy a personal solar unit. So, assuming the team can get the costs down a few hundred dollars, they are hoping some international charitable organization funds part of the endeavor, and then these microlenders step in to help with the rest.
Microfinancing involves very small loans -- a few hundred bucks, maybe -- in poor, rural countries. The loans are paid back over years, sometimes. It's a trend that has taken off in recent years, even culminating in the Nobel Peace Prize for a Bangladeshi economist who studied the process a few years ago.
So, they've got a plan, these UNLV students. What's next?
Belcher will be graduating in December, Wali Zaidi in May, and Sammy Zaidi the next year. They're hoping to complete work on a prototype by early next year. They're already working on patents.
If it works -- they're sure it will, of course -- they'll get going on a detailed business plan. That part, they haven't yet focused on.
But they swear they will.
"This could be huge," Wali said.
Contact reporter Richard Lake at email@example.com or 702-383-0307.