By Tatyana Hopkins
When Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico in September 2017, Omar Negrón Ocasio, a current George Washington University graduate student, and his family were left without a home.
“I lost everything,” he said.
Forced into emergency shelter by the Category 5 hurricane, which claimed more than 3,000 lives, Mr. Ocasio also found himself worried about his most basic everyday needs, including clean drinking water, because along with his home, the storm had also knocked down power grids and water lines. In the month following the hurricane, more than 3 million Puerto Ricans were left without electricity and nearly a million had no reliable drinking water.
But according to Mr. Ocasio, issues with water access are not only a consequence of natural disasters, noting that currently more than 200 communities on the island still get drinking water from rivers, 70 percent of which he said are heavily polluted.
“Worldwide, water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the global population,” he said.
Today, Mr. Ocasio provides clean drinking water to more than 5,700 individuals in Puerto Rico through his social enterprise, Remora.
Founded in 2020, the company launched a patent-pending solar-powered device capable of filtering 12 million gallons of water, annually, from any source, of debris, microplastics, chemicals and other biohazards.
The company won $10,000 in cash prizes during the 13th annual GW New Venture Competition finals, which were hosted virtually and streamed Thursday evening on Facebook live.
Organized by the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the annual competition provides students with the opportunity to work with mentors to craft a business model for a new business idea and compete for cash and non-cash prizes that can be used to jumpstart their ventures.
Winners in the competition are selected from each of three tracks—social, tech and new ventures.
The first-place winners in each track were awarded $10,000 to fund their ventures. The competition also offered more than a dozen specialty-category cash prizes ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, plus a $10,000 Viewer’s Choice Award as well as in-kind prizes.
Finalists’ pitches were posted online days ahead of the awards ceremony.
Mr. Ocasio’s project, Remora, won first place in the social venture track.
“This is a project that is dedicated to helping communities like mine that lack access to clean water throughout Latin America, so I'm very proud to be in charge of this project and to win this prize,” Mr. Ocasio said after being announced as a top-prize winner.
NVC host, Scott Stein, associate director of student entrepreneurship programs, said this was the first year all aspects of the competition were hosted entirely virtually, including workshops, bootcamps, networking engagements and mentoring sessions.
He also noted that this year’s competition was the largest ever in terms of the number of participants.
The 2021 NVC started in February with 466 participants representing 193 teams. Those were narrowed to 12 finalists. This year, teams competed for a portion of more than $500,000 in prizes, including $160,000 in cash.
“Teams overcame huge obstacles such as blackouts in the middle of one of our judging sessions, virtual meetings that spanned eight time zones and [a] lack of resources,” Mr. Stein said. “It's clear that GW students possess grit, determination and perseverance—all hallmarks of great entrepreneurs.”
In his introductory remarks, Provost M. Brian Blake noted that NVC was the third largest collegiate competition of its kind in the nation and a true university-wide initiative, garnering participation and support from all of GW’s 10 schools.
Jim Chung, GW’s associate vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship, also highlighted the growth of the “world-class” competition, including in the area of diversity and inclusion. He noted that this year women founders made up 57 percent of total NVC participants and 60 percent of participants identified as non-white.
“The skills of innovation and entrepreneurship, determination, grit, passion and pitching ideas that our students are learning through this competition will be needed more than ever in the 21st century, regardless of whether they launch a startup, as they are critical for any career path they will take,” he said. “I have no doubt that our students will have a large impact in the years to come, launching new companies, creating jobs and solving global challenges.”
Unravl, a team led by graduate student Zanbria Asante, won the competition’s new venture track.
The startup is developing a device that will automate the hours-long process of removing braided hairstyles.
“I'm so proud to be in a track with all women,” Ms. Asante said. “Everybody's ideas are amazing. Unravl aims to help Black woman who wear brains take down their braids quicker and faster, and this money would definitely help with that. I think this is going to be such a great moment for Black women to enter the robotics market and just apply the innovative ideas to the natural haircare industry.”
SoundPeace, a venture operated by medical students Ameen Khalil and Lauretta Mosteller, won top prize in the tech track. The company is developing a comfortable, affordable and customizable ear muff to block out sound pollution to promote better sleep as an alternative to traditional ear plugs.
“We’re thrilled, and we can’t wait to help you all get some better sleep,” Mr. Khalil said.
He said while it was an honor to win the prize, all of the NVC teams were winners.
“We’re all going to keep working hard, and we’re all going to produce amazing products that are going to help the world,” Mr. Khalil said.