Two professors at Arizona State University posed a challenge to their engineering students: Come up with a function for the numerous used shipping containers abandoned at ports around the world. For Gabrielle Palermo and three of her classmates, crafting a solution to this problem has evolved into not only a compelling model of adaptive reuse, but possibly a lifelong career.
From the roots of that classroom project, Palermo, a junior studying biomedical engineering, and her partners--mechanical engineering senior Billy Walters and mechanical engineering master's students Susanna Young and Clay Tyler--have started G3Box, a company that aims to convert the deserted or decommissioned steel containers into medical clinics that can be deployed around the world.
Many companies use shipping containers that end up languishing at their end locations due to the high cost of returning them to their points of origin. Palermo says the team's thinking immediately turned to ways to convert the containers into something that could help people.
Young and Tyler began working with the idea of turning the 160- or 320-square-foot containers into maternity clinics for use in developing countries with high maternal mortality rates. Palermo and Walters, meanwhile, had been working with Payson, Ariz.-based disaster-relief organization Telehelp on improving container clinics that had been deployed in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake but were found to have insufficient insulation and ventilation. The four students came together to form G3Box--the name comes from "generating global good"--with the idea of designing their own clinics and selling them to nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations.
The modular, mobile medical units--outfitted with ventilation, insulation, power, potable water and any other services a customer might request--can be used by hospitals or organizations that would like to expand existing facilities, or can be easily transported to disaster zones for use as temporary clinics. G3Box plans to function as a hybrid for-profit company and nonprofit foundation.
The students have raised $4,000 from ASU's Innovation Challenge and another $10,000 in seed funding from the school's Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. The team is working on a prototype maternity clinic, in a container donated by Swift Transportation, and hopes to deploy it this summer in Kenya, as part of a partnership with Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit Sustainable Resources. With the $5,000 in prize money from the Entrepreneur of 2011 Awards, the students hope to obtain their second container and build a prototype disaster-relief clinic.
"We feel that medical clinics are the biggest need right now," Palermo says, adding that the containers could eventually be used for "any type of social work around the world: classrooms, food distribution units, dental offices--basically anything someone wants."
The containers, which cost $12,000 to $18,000 to build (the high end of the range includes solar panels), will initially be constructed in the U.S. and delivered to areas of need, but the hope is to eventually have assembly sites near international ports, particularly in Africa.
For Palermo, what started as a student project has the potential to turn into a dream job. "When I started college I didn't really think I was going to be growing a business," she says. "Doing G3Box for my future career or starting up other companies that focus on social good is my passion now."
Carolyn Horwitz is executive editor of Entrepreneur magazine.