Julia Römer was taking part in a summer school module on climate change innovation when she hit upon the idea of a magical-sounding fridge powered by solar-heated water, containing no moving parts or dangerous cooling liquids.
Along with the inspiration for the concept came the realisation that it could be used in remote areas of developing countries with no access to electricity, as a means of refrigerating vaccines and food for up to 4000 people who would previously have had much greater difficulty accessing them.
Fully sustainable and far more environmentally friendly, with ten times less CO2 emissions than conventional refrigeration methods, Coolar has generated interest from organisations like Doctors Without Borders who recognise its tremendous potential.
With $50,000 of the Chivas Venture funding from the 2016 global final, and a further $48,000 from the public online voting, Coolar are close to a perfect prototype ready to be tested in the field. They are also looking towards broadening their product line and, in the long term, perhaps positioning themselves as a large-scale green alternative to conventional refrigeration.
We spoke to Julia about her memories of the Chivas Venture 2016 and her big vision for the future of Coolar.
What are your strongest memories of the Chivas Venture 2016?
The final was the most intense thing I can remember, because I was so scared of going on stage, having this big audience and telling the story of Coolar. Normally, if it’s a normal stage somewhere and there are not so many people, it’s not so scary. But this was special because it was a lot of really high-profile people in a really big audience. I’m not usually that nervous!
What was the biggest lesson you learnt from your fellow finalists?
I learnt so much, it’s not easy to say what was the most important! There are a lot of really great people in startups worldwide, working on making the world better somehow. The network really matters, so if you have people in different countries and you can have some cooperation or projects with them, it’s so much easier. It’s always worth it to develop your network and try and get new people involved with what you want to do.
Did you stay in touch with other finalists or explore working with them?
We have a WhatsApp group that is very active! Whenever someone has something to share we just write to each other, it works really well. We are not working with anyone at the moment, but we will in the future - I’m sure about this. It’s a really active group and I know that when I want to do a project with someone - for example in Angola, with Felisberto Caramba of Habitec - I know that I can do it tomorrow.
Did anything about the Chivas Venture surprise you?
Usually in a competition you don’t learn that much - you’re just a participant and you have to pitch, then you get a prize or you don’t get a prize. But this was so much more than that. Having an Accelerator Week where you’re sitting in Oxford with mentors from the Skoll Centre, and people trying to help you define your social enterprise, that’s something that’s really amazing and specific to the Chivas Venture.
How has Coolar developed since the Chivas Venture?
Having full-time employees is really important, and this is a first in the history of Coolar, making us faster than we’ve ever been. Now that we have the new prototypes ready and tested in climate chambers, we are better prepared for an investment round, because we can now show the real proof of concept - not just something someone has to imagine will be a fridge one day! Now it is a fridge, and we can show all the measurements and test results. It’s really important for getting new money for the company, and this is almost entirely down to the prize money we got from the Chivas Venture.
What are the next steps for Coolar?
We’re working on mobile versions - something that you can carry around with you. That’s also something we want to do in the next few years. We want to expand - you don’t just need refrigerators for vaccines and medication; you also need them for food or other agricultural products. There are a lot of things that need to be cooled in remote areas. These would be different markets that we want to go into, but the mobile sector is also really interesting and sits well with our system. If you have the vaccines you can store them in the refrigerator, but transportation is also a really big problem which is why we want the mobile solutions. Then we can close the cold chain.
Do you envisage Coolar technology having a wider commercial use and replacing current refrigeration systems?
Of course this is also something we’re thinking about. It just needs a bit more time - maybe five to ten years is a good time scale. Because the whole installation into a household system is quite a challenge. It’s not about the cooling system itself - in one sense it’s quite easy because here we don’t have the high temperatures that you get in Africa, Kenya or Senegal. Installing this system in a home is a bit tricky, and that’s something we need to work on. But our first focus is to bring the technology to the people that need it most, in remote areas for vaccines and stuff. Then we’ll think about other things!
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