By Courtney Linder

Now that 5G wireless internet has been deployed across the country in select cities, including in Pittsburgh, data transfer is faster than ever. But there’s a price to pay for that speed — namely, the juice in your phone’s lithium-ion battery. 

Despite the hardships of the Covid pandemic, a 25-year-old entrepreneur has launched a new startup that seeks to remedy this hitch. SuLo by XYZ, which is registered in Los Angeles, California, but runs its operations in Downtown Pittsburgh, is a portable charger company that Jiaman Xu officially launched back in March to help people power their devices in a pinch.

“People would usually find a coffee shop and flock to the table with the power outlets [when their phone dies],” Xu says, “but this is on the go and you can take it with you.”

SuLo’s team worked with a Chinese manufacturer to develop a novel base station that can charge eight smartphone-sized charging units. Customers can use the SuLo app in the App Store or Google Play to check out a unit, which features three charging cables for micro-USB, USB-C and lightning ports. Users simply scan the QR code displayed on the iPad-sized screen on the front of the base station, add a payment method and check out. 

It’s $1.50 per hour to use the chargers, or a maximum of $12 per day. That framework continues until a customer reaches three days of usage, or a $36 charge. At that point, Xu says, the charger is considered “purchased,” which eliminates any fears about theft. For context, it takes about 30 minutes to completely charge a smartphone.

The return process is seamless, too. Xu says that users can drop off the chargers at any location. “It’s like returning a bicycle. You can pick it up at location A and drop it off at location B,” she says.

Currently, SuLo is partnering with the local coffee chain Crazy Mocha to rent out the units. Partner businesses don’t pay any rental or installation fees, Xu says, and they receive a 15 percent share of all revenue generated from their retail locations. SuLo operates its charging stations in 16 storefronts at the moment, and is in talks with other firms.

To be sure, there are other companies in this space — like RedShare in New York City — but none operate at a national scale, and none of them have a similar business model. Xu says that SuLo’s goal is to establish charging stations in at least 30 storefronts in Pittsburgh, which she says can generate about $500,000 in revenue per year, before expanding to cities on the West Coast. 

So far, Xu and her co-founders have mostly bootstrapped the operation, but the Idea Foundry recently invested $20,000 in the business. SuLo is looking for more investments, but not just for the cash; it’s also about the relationships that potential investors could forge with retail businesses in their network.

Overall, Xu is hopeful that her company can truly embody its name, which is a play on the pronunciation of two Chinese words: “faster happiness.”