Interview: Access to funding is only as strong as a company’s networking strength – Erik Hersman, CEO, BRCK
Late Jewish comedian and actor, Max Amsterdam, once said “Business is the art of extracting money from another man’s pocket without resorting to violence.” While that may be a wonderful anecdote to some, it is no joke in the business scene as recently, extracting money from another person has become rather difficult. However, the Chief Executive Officer at Kenyan technology startup, BRCK, Erik Hersman, is changing that narrative by networking his business to accelerate success.
Technology startup, BRCK, recently received about $3 million (Ksh 300 million) in funding from former AOL Executives Jean and Steve Case, along with other participating international investors including Jim Sorenson, TED, MKS Alternative Investments, Synergy Energy and others. According to the company, this significant capital raise includes a total of about $1.2 million which the company raised through seed funding last year.
Steve and Jean Case who are proud to be associated with the BRCK project, said the company had done a good job of driving global digital revolution. “As early investors in BRCK, we have had the benefit of observing, first-hand, the success the company has had in managing rapid, yet sustainable growth as it fulfils its mission to keep Africans connected. We are excited to support BRCK as it enters its next phase of expansion, both improving and enhancing its product offerings uniquely suited to emerging market internet subscribers, and growing the company’s global footprint,” said Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation.
BRCK is a device that seeks to solve problems of electricity and internet connections in low-infrastructure environments. Ventures Africa had a brief chat with Erik Hersman who painted a clearer picture of what BRCK does and how the company was able to attract investments.
Ventures Africa (VA): Your company, BRCK, is focused on tackling electricity challenges in Africa. How has the journey been since you started in 2013?
Erik Hersman (EH): Yes we are tackling connectivity issues. On one hand, it has to do with power and on the other hand, it is all about inter-connectivity and the ability to switch between networks. Basically, we are all about having a backup power plan. BRCK creates a piece of hardware, this hardware is sold to about 54 countries around the world in a bid to solve connectivity issues. In September 2015, we launched BRCK Education which serves as alternate power switch in classrooms. It is very simple to use and has wireless charger. It is an enabling technology.
We do have a number of partnerships on education for instance we have partnered with Intel and Egypt to tackle inter-connectivity issues. We usually run these partnerships based on different demographics. Our major focus for demographics is schools; as well as small businesses. Our devices provide reliability.
VA: From all the countries you supply BRCK to, which part of the world do you focus on the most?
EH: Emerging markets are very key to our business. Of all the countries we sell BRCK to, they are our major focus, due to the fact that many challenges abound in these societies and we make it our duty to tackle them thereby bringing satisfaction to those societies. They have problems with infrastructure (power, internet connectivity).
VA: What prevailing challenges have you encountered during the course of tackling power and interconnectivity in all the countries you provide BRCK to?
EH: The BRCK was designed and prototyped in Nairobi, Kenya, so our major challenge has to do with custom duties as it affects manufacturing than anything else, we also have to organize a lot of on-the-job training for engineers who work with us.
VA: How was your company able to get funding to aid the further development of the products you provide?
EH: Funding is really about who your network is. Our company was able to get in touch with and get funding from Steve and Jean Case as well as Jim Sorenson and others due to the caliber of professionals within our network. It mostly depends on who you tell your stories to and who is willing to listen to these stories. We have been able to tell our stories pretty well for the past two years and our network has expanded because of that. Steve and Jean Case were initial funders of BRCK so, they just followed up on this one. A lot of the people who provided us with funds are those we have known from past work/endeavors.
VA: Is there a backstory to how BRCK was established? I know the company was set up in 2013 but beyond that, what other factors are many people unaware of?
EH: The company, BRCK, has some history that dates back before its formal establishment in 2013. By 2011, goals were set but it took two years before we had something concrete enough to build a company upon. Earlier, I had thought about the fact that electronic devices from New York and London were not suited to handle the challenges we faced here which include power and internet connectivity. So, I thought, why don’t we make our own technology here, so I started drawing out plans to make this achievable. It took a year and a half before we had a prototype that we were comfortable enough to present to Africa and the world.
VA: BRCK is providing solutions to aid educational development in Africa. What products have you introduced for this?
EH: BRCK Education wants to turn every classroom into a digital classroom. Our vision is to enable millions of children in schools across emerging markets access digital educational tools for better learning. As a result, Kio kit and Kio tablet were introduced as a way of providing solutions to education in the classroom, they are wireless devices and they tackle electricity and connectivity challenges. We have begun to revolutionize the Kenyan primary education system through the launch of BRCK Education with its flagship products, the Kio tablet and the Kio Kit – a digital classroom in a box. Kio kit comes with wireless charging availability and is lockable, and in case a tablet is taken away from it, the firmware was built to prevent flashing of its operating system. The Kio Kit can hold and charge 40 tablets and each can run for 8 hours on a single charge.
VA: Your company was present at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit that took place in Nairobi, Kenya. How did the event help launch your company to where you currently are?
EH: The global entrepreneurship summit was a great opportunity for us, having Obama and several entrepreneurial experts able to see our work first hand. It was really helpful for the company and led us to expand our network reach, which has a lot to do with where we are now both locally and internationally.