People Before Profits
For much of the Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, participant Daniel Huertas was “very much in a business-oriented mental state,” he said.
The Min Family Challenge (MFC) encourages would-be entrepreneurs like Huertas to build companies that benefit society. This year, the program focused on developing sustainable ventures to enhance relief and recovery efforts for the victims of natural disasters, and mitigate their impact in the future. USC Viterbi partnered with the USC Marshall Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab to prepare the students for effective problem discovery in a disaster zone.
“We could not ignore the great needs left in the wake of our deadliest and most catastrophic natural disaster season ever, with the likes of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, earthquakes in Mexico, fires in Santa Rosa [California], and other tragedies,” said Alice Liu, assistant director for USC Viterbi’s Office of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “We needed to do something.”
Huertas’s perspective and priorities shifted dramatically after visiting with Hurricane Harvey survivors and others in Texas over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January. He and 16 other students and alumni witnessed the devastation wrought by the Category 4 storm, which killed 88 people and caused $125 billion in damage. In dozens of interviews with local residents and experts, they acquired on-the-ground knowledge about what actually transpires in a natural disaster and its aftermath.
“Before I came to Texas, I thought about building a product, making it great, making money and helping people,” said Huertas, a USC Viterbi graduate student in computer science. “For me now, it’s a little more personal after meeting survivors and first responders. I’m not as concerned about the monetary gains at the end. I’m more concerned that our device is deployable, affordable, and will save as many lives as possible.”
That device is Lighthaus — an early-warning system for earthquakes. The idea? Seconds could save your life. Huertas and his three-member MFC team developed a tiny, sensor-laden computer that plugs directly into a wall outlet that would alert users of an impending temblor, giving them valuable time to move away from a window, get off a ladder or safely exit a house or building.
Before landing at Houston’s Hobby Airport on Jan. 12, many of the MFC participants assumed that the nation’s fourth-most populous city bore the brunt of Hurricane Harvey.
Indeed, about one-third of the city was underwater just 24 hours after the storm made landfall, forcing thousands out of their homes and into shelters. The “Houston Chronicle” reported that Harvey damaged more than 30 percent of the city’s housing, or 311,000 housing units.
The national media’s focus on Houston led government agencies and volunteers to react relatively quickly. That was not the case with many of Texas’s harder-hit rural small cities and towns. Hamshire, in the state’s Golden Triangle, which includes Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange and other small communities, fared worse than most. The Golden Triangle — whose name refers to the wealth that came from the Spindletop oil strike in Beaumont in 1901 and to the area’s shape — experienced some of the worst destruction from Hurricane Harvey, which dropped more than 60 inches of rain in some parts, submerging entire communities. Unfortunately, this region saw little media coverage of the storm’s effects.
Justin Chesson, chief of the Hamshire Volunteer Fire Department, told the visiting MFC participants that the torrential rains had isolated Hamshire from the world for several days. “We couldn’t get anybody in and we couldn’t get anybody out,” he said. “We couldn’t get no help. They kind of forgot about us.”
Communication systems went down. Sewer treatment plants overflowed and contaminated the groundwater, rendering wells unusable. Within hours of the hurricane hitting, Chesson had made his first boat rescue. Within four days, his department and other volunteers had made 400.
Hundreds of residents flocked to makeshift shelters, including First Baptist Church in Hamshire, which later housed operations for the Cajun Army (a Louisiana-based volunteer group that traveled to Texas to help), and became the host site for MFC participants and other volunteers. Many evacuees brought food and water to share with friends, neighbors and strangers.
“I’ve lived here for 37 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Chesson, who estimated that 70 to 80 percent of Hamshire’s housing units sustained water damage. “It was mayhem around here.”
Touring the Wreckage
Bryan Werner turned Chesson’s descriptions into real-life images for the MFC group. The constable of Precinct 4 in Jefferson County, which includes Hamshire, invited a reporter and a couple of MFC participants to tour the area with him in his police vehicle. More than four and a half months after Hurricane Harvey came ashore, signs of ruin remained.
Driving north on Highway 124, Werner said that for days waist-deep flooding made this 6-mile stretch between Hamshire and the town of Fannett impassable because “water was running over the road like rapids.” Pointing to a nondescript part of the highway, Werner recounted how he had rescued a stranded truck driver there — the man had clambered to the top of his cab to avoid the raging waters. Abandoned houses abounded, along with trailers adjacent to houses. Families, he said, had moved into them as their homes underwent major repairs.
Werner’s family was among those relegated to a trailer because of hurricane damage. He had no flood insurance. After two months crammed into a trailer and tens of thousands of dollars of repair work, Werner, his wife and two children went home. He considers himself fortunate.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Werner said. “When you have only 6 inches of water and your neighbor has 3 feet, you feel kind of guilty.”
Geri Brown wasn’t so lucky. The 71-year-old great-grandmother lost her 2,500-square-foot house in Vidor when officials released water from two nearby swollen dams. Brown held on as long as she could, even trying to bail water out of her house. Cajun Navy volunteers evacuated her by boat.
The flooding ruined her house. It also destroyed most of her photos, videotapes and other mementos of a lifetime. Brown had lived in her house for 40 years and raised three children there. She was days away from selling it when the disaster stuck — Brown had wanted to move closer to her daughter. She received nothing from her insurance company.
When the MFC team members arrived at her home to clear it out, Brown was despondent. At that point, she had spent months living in an RV on her property with no running water.
Donning protective white suits, gloves, boots and goggles, group members went to work. For seven hours, under the supervision and direction of Cajun Army volunteers, they used sledgehammers, hatchets, crowbars, flat bars and Sawzalls to rip out moldy walls, ceilings and tiles. Cracking and crunching sounds filled the interior of Brown’s house, as did dust. The USC contingent filled wheelbarrows with refuse that they dumped onto a massive pile by the curb.
Brown, her house nearly completely gutted, thanked everyone profusely for their efforts. She even posed for a group selfie. “You guys are welcome back here anytime. You did a great job,” said Brown, who hopes to sell her stripped home.
MFC participants said they found the experience as meaningful as Brown did. Many said they felt compelled to create successful companies that could one day help people like her.
“Tearing down somebody’s completely ruined house because of a hurricane really gives me a better idea of what a natural disaster is like,” said Arpad Kovesdy, a USC Viterbi freshman majoring in aerospace engineering and the founder of the Portable Cell Initiative, which develops small, portable and power-efficient cell towers. “I want to create technology for people in huge need who are in crisis in their lives. To see what somebody actually goes through makes me much more motivated.”
Added Sophie Pepin, a 20-year-old chemical engineering major and a member of LightTech, a solar-powered water purification startup: “You hear numbers about the hundreds of thousands of people who go through this. But to meet somebody like Ms. Brown, who lost everything, makes it personal.”
So personal, in fact, that several participants vowed to volunteer more of their time to helping others when they returned to Southern California.
Min Family Challenge participants experienced more than just personal transformations during their four days in Texas. They revised their company ideas after meeting with first responders, government officials and volunteers. The feedback they received led many of the aspiring entrepreneurs to improve their business models.
Cynthia Amador and Sharvil Kadam of Homing Beacon Aerial Drone, or HBAD, said their conversations with first responders led them to reconfigure their beacons, which emit radio waves to help rescue workers find natural disaster survivors. Initially, they had planned to make the beacons in the shape of a business card to fit into a wallet. After hearing several presenters say that evacuees always take their cellphones with them, they decided instead to develop small beacons that could attach easily to the backs of cellphones or be worn around the neck.
The beacon idea resonated with Robert Labove of the Cajun Navy. In the aftermath of Harvey and other hurricanes, Labove said, volunteers traveled door-to-door searching for survivors, sometimes finding nobody home.
“A beacon would be awesome,” he said.
Similarly, LightTech team members originally thought they would target big-city customers for their sustainable and easily deployable water filtration units. During the trip, however, they learned from Chris Schottland of United Saints and other relief and rescue workers that most of Houston had recovered more quickly than smaller municipalities such as Hamshire. Going forward, the team plans to refocus its efforts on finding customers, including local governments, in more rural areas where the need seems greatest.
Furthermore, in response to first responders’ concerns about affordability, the team decided to look into 3-D printing their filtration system’s membrane. Changing the manufacturing process would cut costs, allowing them to charge less.
“What we learned is that a natural disaster can completely undermine a person’s sense of agency,” said LightTech’s Justine Lee, a senior in environmental engineering. “If our product can help people regain that feeling and take charge of their own physical water needs, that could make a big difference.”
Added Lee’s teammate, Maria Bacci, a senior in chemical engineering, “As much as we could have set up phone interviews with these people, meeting them face to face gave us deeper insight into the diversity of problems.”
Perhaps no team revised its business model more after the Texas visit than Team Home, a maker of temporary housing. Initially, Team Home planned to build 400-square-foot units out of wood. But after “seeing how big everything is in Texas,” said Ana Mofarrej, a 24-year-old graduate student at the USC Marshall School of Business, Team Home discarded those plans and pivoted to make its portable units bigger and more durable.
Additionally, Team Home decided to use plastic and metal materials instead of wood to prevent the type of mold damage they saw throughout Hamshire. Finally, they might build longer-lasting, higher-quality homes because, members learned, many people end up in living in RVs or FEMA trailers years after hurricanes and other natural disasters.
“Coming to Texas has fueled my energy to do more,” Mofarrej said. “It’s showed me how our product could help real people and allowed us to put ourselves in their shoes.”
The Trip of a Lifetime
Susan Angus, executive director of the Commission on Voluntary Service & Action, a coordinating council for volunteer groups around the country, was one of the early believers of the MFC mission. She helped bridge connections with local government officials, relief groups and other community members. Min Family Challenge participants met with members of the United Saints, the Cajun Navy, the Cajun Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others.
“From all the discussion I heard between the [MFC] students and the volunteers, first responders and second responders, I think they gained really important feedback about what works, what doesn’t work and what needs to change,” Angus said. “I don’t think the students would have gotten nearly as much out of it had they not gone to Texas and met these people in person. I think they realized that it’s just not a matter of coming up with a great engineering idea, but that you also need to identify who will use it, who will be able to buy it.”
The panelists seemed equally pleased to have spent time with the MFC teams.
“As a first responder, I always look for ways to do things better and safer,” said Werner, the constable of Precinct 4 in Jefferson County. “We’re always going to have natural disasters. And to have new technologies and ideas to do things better and more efficiently is wonderful. These kids are our future, and it’s great to have them here.”
The experience in Texas will long resonate with the Min Family Challenge participants who made the trip, said Trina Gregory, associate director of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship at USC Viterbi.
“I think coming to Texas and talking with the people and seeing the devastation and volunteers still helping people took them outside their little bubble,” said Gregory, who oversaw the MFC teams in Texas. “I think this will stick with them throughout their life, and hopefully inspire them to work on projects and companies that make a difference whatever they do in the future.”
2018 Min Family Challenge Participants
On Jan. 30, a panel of entrepreneurs, investors and USC engineering and business professors heard presentations from the Min Family Challenge teams that went to Texas. Four were selected for additional project funding to accelerate the transformation of their nascent startups into viable businesses.
Min Family Challenge Teams Showcase Their Technologies
On Friday, April 6, five teams from the Min Family Challenge presented company ideas before an enthusiastic crowd of 50, including venture capitalists and angel investors, at Michelson Hall. Afterwards, the students showcased their technologies.
The presenting MFC teams included:
Creating an earthquake early-detection system.
Building a solar-powered, all-in-one water filtration system that uses membrane distillation.
Portable Cell Initiative
Developing a small, portable and power-efficient cell tower that restores internet access and cell service.
Building easy-to-assemble, inexpensive homes to house survivors of hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Homing Beacon Aerial Drone (HBAD)
Developing a small beacon that could attach to a cellphone and emit radio waves to a drone that would help first responders locate people in distress.
Helping Startups Get Started
The Min Family Challenge launched in October 2015 with a generous gift from alumnus Bryan Min, a member of the USC Viterbi Board of Councilors, and his family: Julie Min, a UCLA alumna who worked on the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee before raising their two children; their son Brandon, a recent USC Viterbi graduate in industrial systems engineering; and daughter Brittany, a USC student.
MFC provides USC Viterbi students, alumni and other aspiring entrepreneurs with the tools to use innovations in engineering and technology to develop sustainable and effective solutions to global problems.
Each team has at least one USC Viterbi undergraduate or graduate student. Participants engage in a curriculum developed by the National Science Foundation-funded Innovation Node-Los Angeles, focusing on customer discovery, business models, social entrepreneurship and engineering solutions.
“A heavy emphasis in our curriculum is on understanding the customer, or user, intimately,” said Alice Liu, assistant director for USC Viterbi’s Office of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “That’s why this year the Min Family Challenge sent students to ground zero in Hamshire, Texas, to gain a firsthand perspective.”
“The amazing thing about USC Viterbi is that the school supports us to get out of the starting gate and running,” said Ryan Logsdon, M.S. CS ’15.
Organizers hope that participants will eventually transform their business models into technology-centric startups for the greater good. Indeed, the showcase has given birth to several nascent companies with real potential. HonestFi, a 2017 MFC participant, for instance, designs a mobile application to provide financial services, including check cashing, fund advances and prepaid cards, to low-income Americans.
In recent years, USC Viterbi has become a burgeoning center of innovation and entrepreneurship. With the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, the National Science Foundation Innovation Node (“I-Corps”) headquartered on campus, the USC Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program and the USC Viterbi Startup Garage, students have many opportunities to develop innovative business models and explore the commercialization of technologies.
The Min Family Challenge plays an integral role in the school’s nascent innovation ecosystem, USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos said.
“MFC is likely among very few, if not the only one in the world, that challenges engineering students to solve important societal issues using engineering ingenuity,” he said. “It appeals to the better angels of our nature and helps instill a wonderful mindset of societal consciousness to our students, one that will help them change the world.”