By: Patricia Menendez/Staff Writer
FIU students and alumnus returned from a trip to an indigenous tribe in Colombia to find out that a product they created may not work for the community, but that did not discourage them from continuing their business.
Paula Pérez, second-year mechanical engineering student, and Andrew Bowyer, fourth-year mechanical engineering student, are the co-founders of Project SWEET, which stands for Sterilized Water Energy Efficient Transport. SWEET is a business dedicated towards finding solutions that provide equitable access and transport of clean water to rural communities in need.
“We want to close that distance between people and water and we want to make sure that it’s clean water,” Pérez said.
Project SWEET began as a class project for Pérez in her Introduction to Honors course as a first-year student. Her professor made it a requirement for the class to compete in the 2018 Hult Prize FIU competition in December 2017.
The Hult Prize is an annual competition founded by Ahmad Ashkar and held by the Hult International Business School. It challenges college students to find an original solution to prominent social issues such as energy, food, and education. The winner of the challenge receives a prize of one million dollars for their startup business.
The 2018 Hult Prize challenge was to find a solution that “harnesses the power of energy” and that impacts the lives of one million people by 2025.
Pérez and her classmates’ solution to the 2018 Hult Prize challenge was the SWEET roller. The roller consisted of a water reservoir that could be pushed or pulled by a handle attached to it. As the roller rotates, the kinetic energy produced is harnessed and converted into electrical energy by a generator. The generator then powers a UV led light located inside the roller that sterilizes the water.
After winning second place in the FIU competition, Project SWEET was selected to advance to the 2018 Regional Finals in San Francisco in March, where Bowyer then officially joined. The team did not place at regionals, but decided to apply to the Hult Prize Wildcard Round, a virtual round of the competition based on a global scale.
Project SWEET was not selected in the Wildcard Round, but Pérez and Bowyer did not stop working on their business. It was registered as an official business on May 18. By then Cadena had officially joined.
The business’ pilot program is in La Guajira, Colombia with a focus on the indigenous tribe of the Wayuu.
“The Hult Prize was a motivating factor that made me realize I can do this. Once it was over I realized I had the power within me to do it so I didn’t want to stop there,” Bowyer said.
The team then pitched at StartUP FIU’s Pitch Day on May 1. This helped the business receive the Spike’s Empower award presented by Macias Creative agency, a partner of StartUP FIU. The award gives two startups, of Macias Creative’s choice, $15,000 of the agency’s work time.
The team traveled to the rancheria or tribe of the Ishipa in September for six days. The community was near the south of La Guajira.
Ishipa was chosen because of a connection Cadena has through Clubes de Ciencias, a program across Latin America were professionals from the U.S. teach science lessons to underserved communities. Cadena had participated in Clube de Ciencias before and told a friend who then connected the team to Ishipa.
They were welcomed by the elder female leader of the tribe and stayed at her home, which was located within the school they taught in.
Once there, the team along with Gianfranco Colombi, an advisor, began to understand the needs and wants of the community as well as their concerns with the water.
“For this particular community, we really understood their perception of water. They don’t see clean water as a priority,” said Pérez. “Transport is a huge issue, but if we go in there and say ‘we’re going to give you clean water’ they don’t care,” Pérez said.
Bowyer said that their biggest takeaway from the trip was their understanding of the problem in that particular rancheria.
“Instead of having to google every other question and try to understand because we don’t truly understand, all we have to do is think back to our experience, think back to the people we met, to what they said and how they did things. Now we can answer a lot of those questions by ourselves.” said Bowyer.
“Right now we’re focusing on SWEET as basically solutions of the service. What we’re envisioning is that we can go to different communities and we can work with them specifically to find out what it is that they need specifically,” Bowyer said.
One of Project SWEET’s immediate goals, according to Bowyer, is to solidify their proof of concept. Bowyer said that once they have that they prove to themselves as well as investors that their model is feasible and possible.
Bowyer and Pérez advise students who want to start their own business that they should surround themselves with people, besides their team, who are as passionate about the issue as they are and to have a reliable support network.
Project SWEET’s mentors include Emily Gresham, co-founder of StartUP FIU, and Robert Hacker, co-founder and director of StartUP FIU. The team will be traveling to Colombia again in January to co-design a new product with the Ishipa community.