Good Business: Kirsty Kenney, Solarbox

Nicola Slawson

Set to launch in October, Solarbox aims to revive London’s iconic red phone boxes with solar and mobile technology. Co-founder Kirsty Kenney discusses the inspiration behind the idea and the ups and downs of starting a business while studying for a degree

The Good Business column catches up with people who are leading social change. It is created in collaboration with Impact Hub Islington, a co-working and business incubation space in London for socially minded entrepreneurs.

The entrepreneurs featured in this column took part in the Hub Youth Academy, a two-week intensive course for young people to grow and develop their own business.

Nicola: Kirsty, tell us about your business.

Kirsty: The business is called Solarbox. The idea is to transform disused telephone boxes – the red kiosks that you see around London – into solar powered charging points for phones. Users will have a space inside the kiosk to charge their phones and we’ll have advertisements running on a screen. So essentially it’s a free public service for people to use that relies on the sun and capitalises on advertising to provide electricity for public good. We are planning to launch our first kiosk in London at the start of October.

Where did you get the idea and how did you develop it?

My co-founder, Harold Craston, and myself have both just graduated from studying Geography at LSE. We started talking last July about what we could do with old telephone boxes because we were both interested in how they could be used. We decided that using them for charging made sense because they previously had been used for phones. We first got funding from Unltd in September to help develop the idea. Since then we’ve been doing focus groups and entering competitions to get more funding like the mayor of London’s low carbon prize, which we came second in. Neither Harold or I have any tech experience so we’ve taken on an engineer. He has designed this system for us, both in terms of the technology and the design. He can curve solar panels which is really important because we wanted to make the panel as discreet as possible.

What successes have you had so far?

As well as the successes we’ve had in various competitions, getting BT and the local council’s on board were big successes. Also finding the right engineer really helped push things forward. I also think coming to Hub Youth Academy has also been a big success for us. It has opened up a lot of ideas in terms of where we want to go and got us thinking a bit more holistically about business concepts.

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Why have you decided to start a social business instead of going down the traditional route of internships or graduate schemes?

I became interested in social enterprise at LSE. Universities are increasingly catering for people who want to get involved in entrepreneurship, both socially and otherwise. There is a lot of funding and support, so for example our lawyers have been provided to us by LSE. Also, there is time to do these things. In hindsight, we’re more than 12 months on and only just getting this far. I’m glad that we started a while ago rather than starting now and being a graduate for a year whilst getting it off the ground. I’m really happy that we’re doing this, but obviously money is also a pressure because until you can pay yourself it can be quite difficult for graduates to go for it.

What would you say to another young graduate who wants to make a difference?

First all I would say start as soon as you can, before you even graduate if possible. Next, talk to people. That’s the most important thing – you need to get your idea out there to evolve it. Also, find the right networks like here at the Hub or IdeasTap for the creative industries. And just go for it. You have to give it a go!

Photo title: Solarbox founder Kirsty Kenney (r) and Harold Craston (l) with some prospective telephone boxes

Photo credit: © Solarbox

  • Richard

    It’s a great idea, but red telephone boxes are not just a London thing, they’re found in cities, towns and villages throughout the UK and are an iconic British symbol, far from unique to London. Many villages throughout the country have already taken ownership of and/or responsibility for their community telephone boxes and are putting them to use as such things as libraries and spaces for lending other goods, in order to preserve them. Just like Solarbox, these ideas are fantastic in that they preserve beloved and iconic heritage whilst fulfilling a more useful purpose.

  • Solbian

    The pv panel mounted on the roof of the phone box is manufactured by the Italian company Solbian Energie Alternative and it’s a SP112Q flexible solar panel.

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