Two years ago, ASU engineering students Gabrielle Palermo and Susanna Young discovered that they were each working on projects to turn shipping containers into clinics for use in developing countries. Thanks to an Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative grant, they received $10,000 to put toward developing that idea. Then it was a matter of learning how to do so.
FC: In early 2011, seed money enabled you to get your company, G3Box, off the ground. How is it progressing?
Susanna Young: Right now we're making a template to give to construction firms. It costs $15,000 to $18,000 to build a clinic. Our goal is to produce one in two to four weeks. We'll start taking orders in August.
Gabrielle Palermo: We're also finding shipping partners to haul the boxes to ports in Los Angeles for distribution.
G3 is a for-profit company. What benefits does it offer to humanitarian groups?
Young: G3Boxes are better than modular buildings because they can be ready to go at a location in a couple hours, and are more secure and durable than tents.
Palermo: Also, while we're starting out for-profit, we're going to set up a foundation next year. We just need money first.
What are you doing to ensure that you're meeting the needs of G3 customers?
Palermo: We are constantly incorporating feedback into the design. We talked to Paul Sebring, the director of Materials Management Relief Corps Global. He saw converted containers in an actual disaster situation down in Haiti and realized they were inadequate.
Young: He told us to focus on shading the box instead of insulating it; to use solar panels that can take a beating and still function; and to go with basic steel beds because workers will just clean the clinic with a hose. He also said groups using the containers will bring supplies, so we only need to provide storage and basics like power and water hookups.
Palermo: Some of the things he mentioned we had planned on, but his notes have made the designs simpler.
You set out to make clinics for relief organizations. Has your perception of the potential customer base changed at all?
Palermo: A contact told people in India about our idea. The first responses she got were from mining companies.
Young: It opened our eyes to opportunities with oil, mining, and natural gas. You have thousands of men working 16-hour shifts in remote areas. The closest hospital could be hours away via helicopter. We're seeing if that's a market for us.
You're both still finishing degrees. When are you able to focus on the company?
Young: We have two other students, James Tyler and John Walters, on the G3 team, but it's hectic. Meeting is tough, because class is during business hours. Plus, I TA and work part-time. As much as anything else, this is a lesson in time management.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.