Keegan Cotton, 34, is what you'd call an adventurer. A typical sales pitch for his solar and battery-powered generators might involve driving in an open motorboat two hours down a Nigerian river, followed by a three-kilometre hike through a mangrove jungle.
The Texan is a former US army officer who has served in Germany and Iraq, most recently as an economic development officer. 'The US Department of Defense is the world's single biggest consumer of fossil fuels,' says Cotton, explaining that most diesel used by the army in Iraq is for generators. He started thinking about the problem after he left the army, which he did in order to 'make a bigger impact outside the organisation'.
He decided to move to London and enrol on the MBA course at London Business School, which he completed in 2007. Three years later, he co-founded SunDial Power Pods, which produces containerised, mobile, renewable power generators for remote, off-grid environments. 'They produce 24/7 power that can be used in the most remote places for villages, governments, companies, aid agencies and other organisations,' says Cotton.
His company has gone from concept to $10m in revenues, and operations in four continents, in less than three years. Cotton was able to sell his pods to Special Forces in Afghanistan first. 'Selling into the military is not typically a place for start-ups, but, as a former army officer, I saw the need for renewable solutions for soldiers to reduce the logistical burden of fossil fuels, and for the local population to provide sustainable power,' he says.
Cotton has installed systems in Afghanistan and Nigeria and is working to develop similar projects in other African countries. As a start-up with limited capital, Cotton has funded the business through direct sales and is working on offering the SunDial Power Pod system on a leased basis.
The judges were particularly impressed by how Cotton had managed to marry his professional experience in the US army with what he had learnt on his MBA course. 'The skillset to operate in remote, hostile environments I may have learned in the army, but my ability to conduct business in these places I learnt at London Business School.'
Cotton has big plans for the company, including an IPO one day. But his biggest hope is 'that the development that will come with power in these places will not only positively affect communities but also help them in a sustainable way that will conserve our scarce resources.' As Jeremy Darroch puts it: 'It's sustainability married with business performance.'