Johnson School Innovators Compete to Build a Better Stove for Emerging Markets

Johnson school hosts a contest to design a healthier and more environmentally friendly stove for low-income families...


By Francesca Di Meglio via Bloomberg Business, 7/11/13

Designing a stove for low-income households in emerging markets isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of business school. But the fact is that clever design and innovative business models can improve the way people in the developing world prepare meals, alleviating a host of environmental and health problems in the process.

That’s the rationale behind a contest to design a cook stove for low-income families. The competition is run by the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Japanese company Toyotomi.

Designers will submit their ideas to the center by July 31. The school plans to announce the winner in September. A panel of judges, including professionals and academics who come from the worlds of engineering, design, marketing, strategy, and operations, will pick the winner.

Participants must submit a cook stove that addresses design, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, and service challenges in the marketplace while also tackling social and environmental concerns, says Mark Milstein, the director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Johnson. The winner will receive a small cash prize, and the center will help promote the winning design, although there’s no guarantee it will be brought to market.

Most people in developing countries rely on cook stoves, metal cauldrons that burn coal or wood, to prepare meals for their families. Safer and more efficient cook stoves can help reduce carbon emissions and air pollution as well as illnesses from poor indoor air quality that can sometimes be fatal.

Holding the competition at a business school is appropriate, Milstein says, because there are a number of management issues that come up when taking on a design project like this, and it’s a good example of how businesses can make a real difference in the world.

“The intentions of environmental and social organizations are noble, but many of these issues are getting worse,” he says. “What we need to see is people finding ways to address these problems with innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The hope is that the winning design will appeal to consumers. Toyotomi is expecting to see ideas that its research and development team could not easily come up, writes Yoshiharu Katsumata, executive director of Toyotomi, in an e-mail from a translator.

“We understand the necessity of developing new products and solutions designed for emerging markets,” he writes. “We need to change our mindset and behavior, and this competition is important for us in that we can be more innovative through the process of bringing some of the great ideas from this competition to life.”

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