A senior analog designer at Nebula Microsystems, Jake Smith ’18 used his free time to design a portable solar battery that’s changing life in Haiti. He’s just getting started.
In 2019, Jake Smith boarded a plane bound for Thoman, Haiti, to check the status of 25 portable solar batteries he and his collaborators had left there the year before.
About the size of a lunch box, the intuitive devices known as Relays could power lights, phones and small electronics, bringing electricity to homes and areas where it had never existed before. On that flight, Smith wondered what he would find. Were people using them? Would any still be working? Would others want them?
When Smith arrived in the eastern Haiti town, the answer came as a resounding “yes.” The batteries were powering lights and phones and being guarded preciously.
“They loved them,” Smith says. “Two or three had broken, and they had gone to ridiculous lengths to fix them. The Haitian people are so smart and so good at solving problems. They’d welded new circuit components. They figured out how the Relays worked, found a way to flip the wires so they could run two lights instead of one.”
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti ranks 174th out of 197 nations for access to electricity, according to the World Health Organization. Only about 40 percent of its 11 million residents have access to the nation’s unreliable electrical grid.
After completing studies at Elon, Smith earned his dual degree in electrical engineering and engineering-physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. At Georgia Tech, Smith earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering and began working with the Haiti Solar Initiative, which aims to expand electrical access and improve the quality of life in the Caribbean nation.
Smith and the project have since provided 75 Relays in Haiti and outfitted community centers and ministries with efficient solar panels to maintain vital health and educational services. They also designed a solar-run sewing machine, powering entrepreneurship among mothers who operate tailoring businesses to feed and educate their families.
“Seventy-five is good. I feel decent about that at night,” Smith says. “But I want to deliver 10,000.”
Smith grew up in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina. He valued service from childhood, participating in church mission trips and community outreach. His work in Haiti is an extension of that philanthropic mindset, especially seeing the value his expertise in electrical engineering and circuits could hold for technology in the developing world.
“I love integrated circuits. No matter how far you get into this field, there’s space to constantly be learning,” Smith says. “Any time I learn the next thing about circuits, there’s a way to affect people’s lives with that. You can make it possible for people to inexpensively access power and water, so you can save lives with integrated circuits. It’s a powerful field to get into because there’s so much you can do with it.”
Circuits and electrical engineering dazzled him early in high school, but Smith wasn’t ready to commit to the field. He enrolled in Elon’s dual-degree engineering program — which allows undergraduates to earn two degrees in five years by completing three years of courses at Elon before finishing their engineering degree at a partner institution — for the opportunity to explore different aspects of engineering and science.
“Elon engineering is rigorous, but it gives you the chance to ask questions and learn about all types of engineering,” Smith says. “It provides that opportunity to find your way and to be a well-rounded engineer.”
He worked closely with Associate Professor of Engineering Scott Wolter ’85 in a Department of Homeland Security-funded project studying X-ray diffraction imaging for better security screening. “Jake has always taken the initiative to pursue interesting and challenging projects,” Wolter says. “When I learned of his involvement with the Haiti Solar Initiative, it did not surprise me at all. I’m certain he considered his skills and abilities and recognized that he could help those in need.”
At Georgia Tech, Smith was awarded the Outstanding Electrical Engineering Senior Award, the Alvin M. Ferst Leadership and Entrepreneur Scholarship and the electrical and computer engineering Undergraduate Research Award.
Early on, Smith overheard a group of Georgia Tech students talking about the Haiti Solar Initiative and wanted to get involved. He soon became a team leader, designing the concept for the Relay in about a day. He and the team spent the next year “making it work for Haiti.”
“The original design we had was too complicated. We had to simplify, simplify, simplify,” Smith says. “To really fine-tune a design requires knowing your customer. Americans sometimes come into places and think they know the solutions, but you don’t know what people there need. They know what they need. So, we spent a whole year just learning so we could understand what they needed.”
Any time I learn the next thing about circuits, there’s a way to affect people’s lives with that. You can make it possible for people to inexpensively access power and water, so you can save lives with integrated circuits. It’s a powerful field to get into because there’s so much you can do with it. — Jake Smith ’18
That understanding led to a pared-back device that performed the essential function of providing electricity without superfluous components. Designed for a population without much experience with technology, the Relay is intuitive. “Three things have made the Relay successful: it’s small, it’s really simple and it’s inexpensive,” Smith says. “There’s no massive solar panel installation. They throw it on their roof, prop it up and they can take it down at night. Other systems with extra circuitry might work better, but better is expensive. We wanted to make something safe and reliable and efficient enough to work for them.”
The Relays are sold to local businesses below cost, then sold to customers at a small profit. All profits are returned to the project to continue manufacturing and distributing new devices.
So how will Smith get to 10,000 batteries on the ground? This year, he and a team of Georgia Tech undergraduates are prototyping the Relay III, a lithium-ion battery that’s more ecologically sound and small enough to carry in a pocket.
The work doesn’t come without risks. Natural disasters including hurricanes and earthquakes have ravaged Haiti over the past decade. Those disasters have exacerbated political upheaval and violence, exemplified by the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The turmoil makes daily life precarious for Haitians and potentially dangerous for foreigners and aid workers.
“It’s the evil of a select few causing the detriment of the whole,” Smith says. “Haitians are phenomenal people. They are the kindest, most generous and most appreciative people I’ve ever met. The unrest is not indicative of the Haitian people as a whole.”
Their plight only makes Smith more determined to act. “A lot of people see what’s happening there and they turn away,” he says. “I’m in a fortunate position that I can do this work, and if something did happen to me, I’m not leaving a wife and kids behind. I feel called to lend my help there because many don’t have the opportunity or can’t risk the danger of it.”
At home, Smith works as a senior analog designer for Nebula Microsystems in the Dallas area. Until recently, he was an analog integrated circuits design engineer at Texas Instruments, where he designed circuits that make all kinds of gadgets go, from phones to smart doorbells. Texas Instruments supported the project through donations and publicity. Smith says working in circuits is his “dream job.” Every day presents a new puzzle, a new challenge to push through and new opportunities for the next breakthrough that could change the world.
“Engineering is the field of taking science and technology and putting them to use for the betterment of the world,” Smith says. “It’s a noble cause and I try to continuously find ways to do that.”
Learn more about the Haiti Solar Initiative at gthaitisolar.com