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New startup lights up backyards with solar-powered fireflies

Santa Cruz Sentinel

BEN LOMOND — The newest flashing winged beetle to join more than hundreds of firefly species in the U.S. is a quarter-sized, solar-powered lightning bug that hangs from the trees swinging from a long, nylon thread.

It promises to bring the feel of a Midwestern summer night to any backyard, according to Tom Padula, a Kansas native who has worked in Silicon Valley for most of the last two decades and lives now in Ben Lomond where he has launched with his wife a new business, Humble Earth Productions.

“Frankly, I missed having fireflies,” he said. It was a yearning that initially his wife, Autumn Cardone, like many native Californians, just didn’t really get. “She was like. OK, whatever.’ ”

But, at a home party one night, friends from out of state were enamored when they saw the familiar intermittent lights in the garden. “They saw them and went gaga and they wanted them,” Padula said. “That won over my wife.”

Padula was laid off from his software job at Apple in February and the couple debuted the solar firefly last month at the fifth annual Maker Faire in San Mateo. It’s the first of what he says will be many products developed for their home-based business where Padula serves as vice president and his wife as president.

The first hand assembled version was a simple unit that ran on ordinary batteries and was about three inches long. With the encouragement of friends, Padula made it smaller and weather-resistant. He added six little solar cells.

In the real world, fireflies flash chemically-produced light from their lower abdomen as part of their mating ritual. Males with the brightest lights attract mates. The Humble Earth Production firefly is a light yellowish-green, triangle-shaped, light-sensitive device that shines every five seconds or so. Like the real thing that blinks in the backyards of Kansas, these “bugs” fade on and off in about a second. They are not all alike, Padula said. Some double flash, some pause just a little longer before fading on again. The solar-rechargeable battery is good for 1,000 charge cycles and should last to at least a year, according to Padula.

Manufactured by hand in Gardnerville, NV, the devices now weigh just 7 grams. Padula and Cardone do the finish work, weather-proofing and packaging in Ben Lomond. They have fielded online orders from across the country.

“Many people remember them as children and want to see them again,” he said.

Leia Mehlman, a transplant from the East Coast who works in the pharmaceutical industry in Silicon Valley, envisions the solar-powered bugs as personal decoration such as hair ornaments and costumes. She took them on a beta test run at a Burning Man Festival and said they did well despite a desert dust storm that caused a brownout that year.

“Certainly natural objects have been used a long time for decoration, so why not electronic?” she said.

Padula has also considered creating gizmos that chirp like crickets and others that fly. “We expect it to be the first of many products,” he said.

The couple plans to advertise via the Internet and gardening catalogs. A patent is pending. Other electric fireflies on the market are more like holiday lights with wire attachments and more permanent installations, Padula said.

The couple also pledges to provide a portion of their profits — once they reach profitability — to organizations involved with researching colony collapse disorder, which is a puzzling global epidemic affecting honey bees.

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Humble Earth Productions

WHAT: A privately held online startup that produces quarter-sized, solar-powered blinking devices that simulate Midwestern fireflies at night.
HEADQUARTERS: Ben Lomond garage
BACKGROUND: Founded in May 2010 by a husband and wife team
LEADERSHIP: Autumn Cardone, president, and Tom Padula, vice president/chief engineer
INFORMATION: 408-964-8665; http://www.humbleearthproductions.com
FIREFLY SPECS: 7 grams; less than 1 inch across
COST: $9.95 each
FINANCIALS: The company has not yet reached profitability.

This article was published here.

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2010 by in Business, Feature Articles.

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