“Talks don’t help anyone out of poverty. Awareness doesn’t reduce pollution, grow food or heal the sick. These take doing,” says NRI billionaire Manoj Bhargava, who has committed himself to investing 99 per cent of his wealth in initiatives to fight poverty.
Bhargava plans to produce 10,000 units of innovative electricity-producing bicycles in India by March next year. The aim is to provide clean and cheap energy to the poor, especially in rural areas.
“We intend to make all the bikes for India in India. These will be distributed throughout the country,” Bhargava tells Business Standard in an interview. “There could probably be a market for 100 million of these over time.”
The hybrid bicycle, called ‘Free Electric’, will convert human mechanical energy into electricity. While Bhargava admits bicycles producing electricity is not a new concept, he says his device will be more efficient than the alternatives. “A standard electricity-producing bicycle can power one bulb as long as you are pedalling it; the bulb goes out once you stop pedalling. Our device can power 24 light bulbs, a fan, a phone charger and a tablet charger at the same time,” he says. In total, the device can provide up to 24 hours of electricity after one hour of pedalling.
“It has to be simple and easy to fix,” says Bhargava, describing the design philosophy. “Anybody can set up the electric bike, so they have electricity for the rest of their lives,” he adds.
After making a fortune in the energy drink business, Bhargava, 62, started the ‘Billions in Change’ initiative to finance development and commercialisation of technologies that help combat poverty. He describes it as an attempt to make a change in a way that will have a “permanent effect”.
“My teachers taught me years ago that to solve a problem we have to understand it first and then attack it at its root,” says Bhargava, adding a lack of access to affordable electricity and clean water is at the root of poverty in India and elsewhere.
Among his ‘clean energy’ initiatives is ‘Stage 2 Innovations’, where Bhargava’s team is busy fine-tuning inventions aimed at providing clean and affordable energy, health care and potable water. The ‘Free Electric’ bicycle is part of this initiative.
Bhargava’s personal philosophy seems to match the simplicity of his inventions. “I don’t have a lot of fancy hobbies. There’s really not much of a choice; I can either do something of value for the people in need or just spend my money on hobbies. I choose to do something of value. All the money will basically go towards that,” he says.
Born in Lucknow, a 14-year-old Bhargava had moved to the US in 1967. After attending Princeton University for a year, he came to India and lived as a monk for 12 years before returning to the US. In 2004, he started a company Living Essentials, LLC, which launched energy drink 5-Hour Energy.
According to the official film of ‘Billions in Change’, posted on the internet on October 4 this year, Bhargava’s net worth is over $4 billion. However, Business Standard could not independently verify the figure, as Bhargava’s company is not listed and Forbes does not feature him on its latest list of 400 rich Americans.
Bhargava hopes the Indian government will help him build and distribute the bicycles, but he is willing to go it alone if he doesn’t get the required support. “If nobody helps us, I will do it one village at a time; if we get help, it will be all across the country,” he says.
Bhargava’s vision is not limited to India. While ‘Free Electric’ is ready to roll, another energy project under development at Stage 2 Innovations is ‘Limitless Energy’, a project that aims to apply a novel substance to tap into geothermal energy.
Generating electricity from geothermal energy is nothing new, either. But Bhargava’s project aims to increase the efficiency of the process. Bhargava believes a substance called graphene could help get totally clean and unlimited energy. He intends to use cables made from graphene, a conductor hundred times more efficient than copper, to go deeper below the earth’s surface and bring out energy more efficiently.
“With regard to graphene, the technology is there. There are engineering challenges we need to overcome. Hopefully, in the next few months, we will put out an engineering proof of the concept,” he says. “I don’t want to talk about this yet; it’s still in the works.”
He hopes this project would inspire countries to invest in the technology, and says the concept might translate into energy security for nations and wean them off fossil fuels. Describing the potential impact of the project, he says: “Imagine if India imported nothing in terms of fossil fuels — no coal and no petroleum!”
Bhargava hopes the Indian government would realise these new technologies are more efficient and cheaper. “Thanks to the ‘Billions in Change’ film, we have thousands of volunteers in India who are willing to champion our cause,” he says. “The way to do this is to talk to the government, get it to say it wants to do this. By the time we are through, we will have 30,000-40,000 volunteers in India pushing this forward. I am expecting a groundswell.”