Bradley Clair & Nicholas Kamols On How To Power On With Your Social Enterprise
Bradley Clair is passionate about the intersection between business and technology as a driving force for good.
He is the founder of AMPLFY, which empowers young people in need, to gain the skills and confidence necessary to build their own Boom Boxes, from recycled materials.
He has a background in business, and has worked on projects delivering small business grants to women with HIV in Cambodia.
His love for tinkering led him to gain experience in the recycling industry at Substation33, up-skilling individuals to create innovative products, which solve both social and environmental problems; and has since co-founded PowerWells with Nick Kamols.
Nick Kamols is a town planner and startup co-founder. He’s worked as a planner in both the public and private sector and recently went out on his own with the intent of learning about innovation and startup culture first hand, which quickly escalated into the large-scale passion project which is PowerWells.
He was a founding member of the Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand Emerging Innovators Network, and maintains the role of National Coordinator. Nick has also recently made a move into academia, to explore the impacts of Smart Cities projects.
He describes his life as being at both ends of the development spectrum, being at the forefront of the future of human settlements, while also working with people in remote communities that don’t yet have electricity.
Brad and Nick discuss how they got early traction at Powerwells, sharing insights into their social enterprise journey and what they’ve learnt about the future of business.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - To start things off could you please share a bit about your backgrounds and what led you down the path of social enterprise?
[Nicholas Kamols] - Well, I'm a town planner. And that essentially is just trying to make the future better for the people who are living and working, visiting a city. And so from that, my interest was in, "What's the future of human settlements?" Which got me into innovation and startup culture. Which I then tried to learn firsthand as a town planner. What's going on in startup hubs and those sort of things? And then that led to going headfirst into a big passion project ourselves.
[Bradley Clair] - So my background is, I actually studied Business Management at university.
UQ. And I majored in marketing. After I graduated from university, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I decided to hop on a plane. And then I flew to Cambodia and worked for a non-profit over there providing business loans to women with HIV so they can set up their own business. And then after doing that, I realised how much giving a small amount of money can have such a big impact in someone's life. So then coming back, I wanted to make sure that whatever I do, it's all about being in the service of other people, and helping other people out, because it was such an amazing feeling. To actually give so much to people who really need that help.
So then I started AMPLFY. AMPLFY is another social enterprise and basically, we want to try and teach people to build portable speakers built from new and recycled electronics. We recently just partnered up with Traction, and we're teaching disengaged kids how to build portable speakers and they're all encased in ex-military ammunition cases.
And then through AMPLFY, I met Tony Sharp. And then I started actually running the battery recycling process at Substation 33. Because I needed a lot of batteries for my speakers, and then after doing that, Tony got me on board to help him work with the road flood signs. So I was in charge of the battery manufacturing there. And then having that knowledge helped us to start Powerwells as well.
So how did you boys meet?
We actually met one year ago as of last week.
[Nick] - Brad forgot our anniversary [laughs].
[Brad] - We actually met at the Startup Weekend in Logan. We pitched a business idea around how we can use electronic waste to try and help people in developing communities.
So whether it was building 3D printers, whether it was building big batteries or building prosthetics. But then what actually happened was one of the people from our group called Amadis, was telling us about his stories about how he used to actually live in West Papua. And he was telling us about how he grew up in a village without having any access to electricity. So through that, Nick and I, and Amadis, devoted our weekend to try to solve that problem.
[Nick] - We were really a product of our environment, right? So Amadis shared this story, we were looking around Substation 33 that has all this e-waste and all the things that they do with it. So really the idea wouldn't have come if we were in any other environment, probably.
It's a great story. I heard about around the time of Logan's Startup Weekend in 2017 at Substation 33 which Tony Sharp runs.
So tell us more about Powerwells. What is it? What does it do? What are your aims?
[Brad] - So basically, we're building big batteries made from recycled electronic laptop batteries. What happens is one laptop battery might have one individual cell in it out of six that is dead. And what we can do, is actually take out all the good cells and then use them to build a bigger battery. And then we can use that for people to charge their phones and charge their lights. So that's recharged every day with a solar panel. And with our system, you can charge about 30 to 40 phones and lights per day.
Wow. And where are these products going to, who are they benefitting?
Well, we were working backwards from Christmas, after the Startup Weekend. We realised that we had a week and a half before it was going to lead into December. And we wanted to run a crowdfunding campaign in December, but what that meant, was we actually had to build a prototype in five days. And then we had to install it into Indonesia in a week and a half, essentially.
Wow. So you were on a plane and over to Indonesia.
[Nick] - Yeah, with what looks like bomb making equipment… so Brad had a bit of a tough time getting there.
[Brad] - Yeah, I spent about half an hour in customs trying to get through. My bag was full of metal electronics and...
[Nick] - We're trying to convince them that it was a thing, right? And they were like, "That's not a problem, you know, you’re lying. Everyone here has electricity." Which we found to be not true. About 26 million of them don't.
So the plan was to take these Powerwells over into Indonesia or developing countries?
[Brad] - I guess the plan was initially to actually use our electronic waste to build Powerwells with.
And then those Powerwells can go into the communities there that don't have power. So that's what we wanted to try and do initially, so I guess in Jakarta, the first thing we did was, we only had five days. The first thing we did was...
[Nick] - Met up with Amadis's friend.
[Brad] - Yeah, met Amadis's friend who just happened to be an Indonesian to English translator. So he was the only person that we knew over there. And then basically, on the first day, we were trying to find electronic waste to actually build the Powerwells. On the second day, it was building a Powerwell in the hotel room. So I was soldering and I was blowing the smoke out of the window, to keep the smoke alarms from going off. I think Nick wandered down the street to go find some old paint cans.
[Nick] - Which was more difficult than it should have been.
[Brad] - Yeah. And then on the third day, we stupidly hired a car to go and literally drive to wherever we thought there might be a place without electricity. So it was a lot of searching through Google Maps. Trying to find really isolated villages that didn't have any power lines or anything connected to them.
[Nick] - Like, "That looks remote. Zoom in on it. Oh, wait. That looks like a power line. I don't know." Then we were like, "Hey, this area looks like it might have something, let's get a car and drive."
[Brad] - So Nick was the one who braved it. I was too scared to drive.
[Nick] - I was pretty scared to drive.
[Brad] - I was like, "Nick, you can do this." We drove for about ten hours outside the city of Jakarta. And we effectively only got 100kms because traffic there is so bad. And I think it was about 11 pm at night. We came across an electrician who was fixing a power outage in another village. So we were like, "We might as well stop here and ask him if he knew of any places that didn't have any power." And it turns out the village that he grew up in, the village that his parents currently lived in didn't have any electricity.
So the next day, we drove out to their village and installed a Powerwell, a week and a half after the idea was born.
[Nick] - So it was a walk and we took a little scooter up, but it was about two hours to get from the car up to the village.
[Brad] - Yeah, so we had to walk up a mountain. And the road and the infrastructure were... The roads that were there were completely destroyed by all the flooding and stuff. So I think the government actually installed roads there to maintain, to actually install..
[Nick] - Well, they put roads in to install a big solar farm up there to service this one community. But then we found a common thing is that they don't have a maintenance contract, so they last for about two years, fail, no one knows how to fix it. And they effectively go back to worse than they were before it was installed.
[Brad] - And officially, the government recognises them as having electricity as well.
A pretty dire situation.
Having got the product out there so quickly and giving you the process to help validate or change, iterate and learn directly from those who you're trying to benefit is a great example. So, what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs to move beyond the talk and into the action?
[Brad] - That's a good question.
[Nick] - It's really just, "Go out there and do it," right?
I think a lot of people make the mistake of just planning it out so methodically, and it's not until you actually get out into the field and you test it, you break stuff and you see what happens, that you can just learn so much more.
And you might realise that the direction that you're going in might not be the right direction.
[Nick] - Or it won't be the right direction.
[Brad] - Yeah, it's pretty unlikely for it to be the right direction.
The fact is you’ve just got to make a start and just head in any direction. And once you do that, then you start pivoting towards where you need to go.
Exciting times. So there's whispers, boys, that you guys are up to something.
[Brad] - Oh, this is a mistake. We didn't mean to start another business, but it looks like we might've accidentally done that.
[Nick] - Couldn't help ourselves.
So I've just heard a little bit about this, I'd love to be able to blow today out on the podcast. But what can you share? What can people expect from another business from you guys, another social enterprise?
[Nick] - We need some permissions first, so we can't go into details, but we've worked out a way to raise some money for some of our mates who have a mental health charity. So we’re creating a card game, essentially, with a big chunk of the profits going to them.
[Brad] - It's kind of like Balderdash meets Cards Against Humanity.
It's fun. So we actually had one of the girls, who was playing with us. She actually...
[Nick] - Ayla!
[Brad] - Yeah, Ayla. She laughed so hard, no joke, that she literally had Coke squirting out of her nose.
[Nick] - And that was our validation.
[Brad] - So we put a big picture of her up on our slideshow. That’s in our pitch deck. Whenever we pitch it, she's always up there. First to validate the idea.
That's classic. So, coming back to social enterprise and the sector in general, how have you seen the sector transform over the past few years and where do you boys see it heading into the next five odd years? What do you think's going to happen?
[Brad] - I guess I've been involved in the social enterprise sector for quite some time now.
I've seen a lot of traction over the past five years, and it's grown so much.
So when I started AMPLFY, or even when I was back at university, we weren't really studying anything to do with social enterprise. The way that I learned about social enterprise was actually participating in accelerator programs based around that. So AMPLFY went through Impact Academy, and I just learned so much from that. And then I realised that to have a really successful business, you actually need to have a social enterprise.
I think a lot of consumers are pressuring these companies to be more socially and environmentally focused with what they're doing.
And it's also these big investment firms, I think it's Blackrock?
Yeah. So I think he sent an email to all of his companies basically saying that they need to have a social purpose in what they're doing. So just that, there's huge...
Pretty powerful coming from one of the biggest venture capitalists in the world; in my understanding.
[Nick] - Yeah, and part of it is validation of that; that if you aren't doing this, you're very vulnerable to a lot of economic hits that you can take. As much as it is about just being socially conscious and environmentally conscious, it's also good business to be in.
So having that social licence to operate, I believe, is really what the future of business is.
[Brad] - And I guess, in everything that we're doing, that's a huge competitive advantage for us as well. To have that is huge, especially because we're recycling electronic waste. That sets us apart to so many other different companies.
[Nick] - And I think it's really important to be following big trends, right? So you’ve got your mega trends and things. You can be looking at your local area and seeing what's going on, but if you want to have a really successful business, I think you want to be looking broader. And the UN's Sustainable Development Goals are really good places to start. They really outline where the world's heading, and then you can attach yourself to those. For the right reasons, attach yourselves to those. You're probably going to do pretty well out of it.
Very interesting thoughts. So let's talk a little bit about policy. If you were to have a message for government, whether that be local, state, or federal, what would you say? How could government best support you guys to do your work, or the sector more broadly?
[Brad] - I was going to say, "Get out of the way," but I've actually just had this conversation with Nick and I think that's not completely accurate.
I think government actually has a strong role, and especially in supporting these newer social enterprises.
And we're being supported by Advance Queensland, by Logan City Council. They've been huge for us. And also know that working with Substation 33, I think it's the Smart Cities…
[Nick] - Yeah, so Substation 33 just got a fair chunk of money from the Federal Government Smart Cities programme. And they've got funding from the State Government as well. So without those sort of things... I mean, my opinion is that government really need to facilitate it. They need to know when to get out of the way. And I think one of the most important things is, it's be adaptive, but also recognise that you shouldn't ever be striving to catch up with innovation. So regulation should never catch up with innovation and if it ever was to, by definition that would mean that innovation has stalled. So that's not some goal place that you want to set, but you often see them wanting to keep up with it, but they shouldn't be trying to do so.
Interesting. Okay, so, inspiring projects. You have come across quite a few. Tell us about a few of the interesting projects you heard of recently that are really delivering on the positive social impact.
Yeah, I guess one of our favourites is the TradeMutt guys. So they're banking on these awesome, fluorescent, outrageously coloured work wear. And basically, the idea behind it is it's a conversation starter. So people see it and they're like, "Wow. That's a ridiculous outfit." What's the deal? Why are you doing that? And the tagline on the back there is, "This is a conversation starter," which is awesome. So they actually just started their foundation. I guess it's all about creating programmes to improve mental health.
[Nick] - I think one of the other really exciting ones is one that has got greater outcomes, is Envirosand. So essentially they've worked out that, although we collect glass bottles, beer bottles and stuff, as recycling, it's not really economically viable to really recycle them properly as we would think. Especially now that China isn't accepting things. So what they're doing is they're grinding them down into different levels of coarseness and using them in other products. They mix them with asphalt, pour them into roads and that sort of thing. So one of the most interesting things is that they are able to go into landfill, unlike our batteries that we do with Powerwells. But it's so expensive because it's so heavy that it makes sense to just keep them in a pile on the ground currently. So, they've found a way to use these big stockpiles of glass to use them into something else.
Reduce, reuse, recycle isn't in a random order. It really is that hierarchy of what you should go through. So we really should reduce, reuse, but when we have to, and we have the ability to, recycle, like they are doing at Envirosand.
[Brad] - I think one of the really cool things about the way that the TradeMutt guys actually approach mental health is that they're coming from a really different angle. They're really light-hearted about it, which is such a serious topic. So people are afraid to talk about it, but the way that they approach it is completely different to any other social enterprises dealing with that sort of stuff. So I think that's awesome.
[Nick] - So we really learn from them as well.
So with serious subjects, do you just get into that gloomy "look how bad it is"? Or do you celebrate the wins, do you celebrate the impacts?
So we have consciously switched our messaging around to "look at all the great things." Rather than "look how bad it is before we get stuff in."
[Brad] - So it's about the outcomes that we're achieving, it's about extending productive hours of the day. It's about giving people light so they can work at nighttime, and giving people light so kids can study at night. So it's not about people inhaling kerosene or something like that. We're trying to switch it to be more positive.
[Nick] - I think one interesting thing that I didn't know about, Tom, is what schools are doing, right? Ormiston College has just been doing with their grade eights, a social impact accelerator internally. All based on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. And what was your school doing?
Oh, Fix-ed, yeah. I actually heard about them, yeah, a couple weeks ago.
And we've actually got a mobility scooter that we can donate to your program.
I think there's definitely a lot of traction and a lot of schools recognising that these sorts of social entrepreneurship and human centred design skills are really the skills that students need for the future.
So, on that note, to wind things up, what books would you recommend to our listeners?
[Brad] - Yeah, that's a great question. I think...
[Nick] - Brad doesn't read, so…
[Brad] - Yeah, I actually listen to a lot of podcasts. But yeah, Impact Boom is my favourite. So a really good book that I read, I think I read it about five years ago, was a book by Peter Diamandis. And it's Abundance. It's about the future of technology and the ability of technology to fundamentally change the world for better. So reading that just made me want to get into the whole tech space. And not having a background in electrical engineering or mechanical engineering, I kind of felt like that wasn't something that I could actually get into.
But just since I've been working with Substation 33, I've developed those skills and now I've started a company based on renewable energies and we're building 3D printers and stuff like that. So, that's inspired me for the direction that I'm in right now.
Fantastic. What about yourself, Nick?
[Nick] - I think I might have to read that book. One that I've read very recently, is 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. It's basically the third book of his that I've read, and it's all about what is coming into the future. How do we prepare for it? And like I was previously saying, if you want to base your social impact startup around something, it talks about the big trends that you'd be following, and you should be really conscious of.
Another one that I really liked, but it might be more entertaining. It is insightful in the way it looks at the way that we use data. And basically trying to get good data sets that are truthful and not misleading. It looks at a fair few things, including social media, which ones to do. But it's called Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. And what it's really looking at is, essentially, is Google search terms. You can basically look at the historical of Google searching things. When they came out with that, they said, "This is good data, but you wouldn't want to base a PhD on it." Apparently Seth says that he went, "Okay, I'm going to do my PhD on it." And from that, he just found it to be, what he called it, a digital truth serum. People lie to their Facebook, but when they're searching for something on Google, it's truthful and the amount of insight you can get from that is just eye-opening. So that's really entertaining, and a really insightful book.