27/11/2015 4:35 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Manoj Bhargava, Energy-Drink Billionaire, Wants India To Pedal To The Light

Jacob Koshy

Manoj Bhargava, the Indian-American billionaire associated with energy-drink 5-Hour Energy has just launched the first of a slew of devices, which he claims will revolutionise the energy needs of the world.

The Free Electric bicycle (FEB) is an anchored wheelchair with an ample backrest. An hour of pedalling the contraption converts the motion of the wheels into electricity that can fully charge a 12 Volt battery. At the press-demonstration, 30 seconds of Bhargava's pedalling generated enough electricity to light up 24, 7-watt bulbs, a low-power fan (such as in a bathroom exhaust) and an Ipad charger. However almost immediately after Bhargava stopped pedalling, the lights went off.

Bhargava's pitch is that several of India's poor, "who live in darkness" will be incentivised enough to spend Rs 12k-15k, for a device that occupies as much space as a massage chair and that can--given an hour of steady pedalling and 12-volt battery in tow- just about run two electric bulbs and a fan for 2 days. "In this room, we are all rich and this is not for us," said Bhargava, "but i've asked several in the villages..waiters, cooks...and they are impatient for this."

Profit isn't on Bhargava's mind, who according to reports has pledged to give away 90%-99% of his wealth through various schemes, but the production of the FEB will be a tightly-controlled operation as he doesn't want to compromise on quality. "When we got to this, our aim is that anyone who can fix a cycle ought to be able to fix it (the FEB). So it's isn't a complex device but we don't want anyone, who is not committed to producing a quality product, making this."

He added the cycles would be made in Michigan and shipped to wherever required and there would licensed manufacturers in India who'd also be trained to manufacture the product. Production is expected to start full-fledged, next March with 10,000 such bi-cycles expected to be available in the first lot.

Bhargava spent his boyhood in Lucknow before moving to the United States and eventually founding a plastics company. He's best known for consumer products company, Living Essentials that produces energy drink 5-Hour energy that has been both popular as well as controversial.

The Bicycle is among a coterie of products from Bhargava's company, Stage2 Innovations, that has laid plans to develop a water purification machine called the Rain Maker to desalinate water, a device to improve blood circulation and, an exotic venture called Limitless Energy that uses a material called graphene--currently the centre of much study for its potential in solar cells and tv displays00to conduct heat from below the earth's surface and run turbines.

To be sure, bikes that can be pedalled to produce energy aren't new. It is estimated that an adults can pedal out between 100-320 watts of power depending on their fitness. However Bhargava's colleagues say that their product is specifically designed for poorer countries where pedalling would generate power to run homes rather than physical fitness, as in the West. "We've made design changes, a push-back seat to generate greater force keeping such factors in mind," said Kit Smoker, Director of Operations, Stage 2 innovations.

For someone so ambitious and who's on a mission to ensure that a new kind of "Industrial Revolution" begins in the developing world, Bhargava is distrustful of governments and non-profits. "Both are horribly inefficient though i'm not against government," said Bhargava, who said he'd met Prime Minister Modi in the US but couldn't find a common wavelength to work upon.

There are several projects and foundations that work on providing energy efficient solutions in India however a major impediment has been access to finance and managing an effective distribution network. India has only 60% of its population with access to electricity and several among them barely get an hour of steady power at home. Bhargava said he isn't "an MBA guy with 3 and 5 year plans" and hasn't divulged a financial model to popularize the bicycle, except that several approaches from subsidizing cycles or building a network of cycles that can be used to charge a collection of batteries would be tried. " Once the idea catches on, people will figure ingenious ways to capitalize on it. For now, do note that today is a historic day."

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