GW students and entrepreneurs describe innovative, sustainable and resilient solutions for D.C.’s most vulnerable communities.
By B.L. Wilson
“Climate change is here. We’re seeing bigger storms, flooding and sea levels rising. It’s affecting all of us. But it is not affecting all of us equally,” according to Dan Gilbeault, the director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and the Environment, which works in partnership with the GW Office of Sustainability.
“Seniors and differently abled people may need to get information in different ways, may need more time and new ways to get out of tricky situations during a disaster,” Mr. Gilbeault said.
The team finalists in the George Washington University’s third Climathon spent the past two months working on ideas that will address the city’s most vulnerable communities. Late Friday at Duques Hall, each team gave energetic pitches, determined to walk away with the prize money for innovative solutions that impact climate change.
The GW Institute for Corporate Responsibility co-hosted the event along with the GW Office of Sustainability. Dr. John Forrer, ICR director and associate professor at the GW School of Business, said judges were looking for one good smart idea that addresses both the policy side and business side of climate change. In addition to the DC Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE), Resilient DC, as a member of 100 Resilient Cities, was an enthusiastic participant in the event.
The two groups of finalists-- weMesh and Power to the People--have been developing ideas that would serve people with disabilities, seniors, and low-income communities in D.C. They won the first phase of the DC Climathon competition against sixty innovators in the 24-hour hackathon in September facilitated by Monica Kang of InnovatorsBox, the face of Start-Up Weekend DC.
Members of Team weMesh, GW students Abigail Demasi, a mechanical engineering senior, and Joseph Schiarizzi, a senior computer science major, were given five minutes for a brisk presentation describing a device they developed that would connect or “create a mesh network” of vulnerable communities when phone systems or cell towers fail.
The device dramatically reduces the cost of technology that is currently available but most often used by hikers. It would allow people to send text messages and voice recorded messages through peer-to-peer communication.
“We also want to market our devices not only as an important component of disaster preparedness but also something that could be used every day… for example, a family struggling to pay the monthly phone bill,” Ms. Demasi said.
A panel of four technology and business experts grilled Team weMesh on the challenges they may face from existing telecommunication companies and whether they fully understand and establish a relationship with the communities they’ve targeted.
Next up was Team Power to the People: Felipe Bohorquez, graduate student in information systems management; George Raskovic, a graduate student in international affairs specializing in development; Aditi Seth, a graduate student in international science and technology policy; and Sesan Dehghan, an IT program manager who has worked with several nonprofits, including Byte Back.
The judges including shark tank entrepreneur Jordan Lloyd Bookey and chief sustainability officer from HP Nate Hurst were impressed with the team’s ability to share different pieces of the puzzle as each took turns pitching a project that trains unemployed people in low-income communities to install new and emerging technologies that reduce energy demand.
“There’s a mechanism for the community to gain the skills and opportunities that they need,” Mr. Dehghan explained, “and also benefit from this work because they are the ones hardest hit when these failures (from overloaded and antiquated grids) do occur.”
Ultimately, the judges decided Team Power to the People the winner. Judges said they saw great potential in Team weMesh’s project, as well. They split the award between the two with $7,000 going to the winner and $3,000 going to the runner up. Both become automatically eligible to compete in GW’s third New Venture Competition with a chance at greater monetary awards.
Meghan Chapple, the director of GW’s Office of Sustainability, said, “In a time of chaos and confusion around climate change, we’re looking for leadership on the issue. Young innovators hold the potential to create local and regional solutions to these daunting changes. We are giving them the resources and support they need to truly have an impact on climate change in our local communities.”
Climathon competition runner-up Team weMesh: Joseph Schiarizzi and Abigail Demasi.