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These MBAs Want To Give Refugees Electricity

refugees and MBAs

Refugees — like these residents of an encampment in southern Macedonia in 2015 — face challenges from a lack of resources, especially a steady source of electricity. A new startup led by MBAs from ESADE in Barcelona, Spain, wants to address the problem

The world is full of persecution and those fleeing it. Thousands are uprooted every day from their homes and lives by violence in the Mideast, in Africa, in Asia. Millions more in India, Africa, and elsewhere are locked in poverty by a simple lack of access to basic necessities: food, water, shelter — and electricity. And it’s this last resource, electrical power, that Lalitha Kakulapati and Ivan Leis want to bring to populations that need it most.

Recently graduated MBAs from ESADE in Barcelona, Spain, Kakulapati, from India, and Leis, from Argentina, are part of a team that formed for an international competition that challenged participants to innovate their way to a solution for a major world problem. But even after the competition ended, their team — which includes engineers and designers from other schools in Spain and Italy — is sticking together to make their solution a reality: providing power to Syrian war refugee encampments.

“This is not something that we can just build and deploy and let it just be,” Kakulapati tells Poets&Quants. “It’s something that we need to pour our hearts into for I don’t know how many years.”

A SIMPLE, LOW-COST, MODULAR POWER GRID

refugees and MBAs

Lalitha Kakulapati. Courtesy photo

The United Nations estimates there are more than 65 million refugees in the world, those leaving their home countries because of war, famine, disease, or some form of persecution. Wide-scale refugee resettlement is almost always attended by humanitarian crises, exacerbated by a want of resources — clean water, healthy food, decent and reliable shelter.

The greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today is the six-year civil war in Syria, from which 4.8 million have fled to neighboring countries in the Mideast and Europe. Some half a million have settled in semi-permanent camps, including huge encampments in southern Europe — mostly Greece and Macedonia. The camps differ widely in quality but one thing they all have in common: a lack of steady, available electricity.

With electricity comes lighting, productivity, sanitation, security. But how to solve the problem of a consistent electricity supply for massive, often remote encampments of temporary structures? That’s the problem a group of engineering and business students are trying to tackle, and their solution is a startup that makes a low-cost, simple, and modular power grid.

NEW TECH APPLICATIONS TO ADDRESS SOCIAL CHALLENGES

refugees and MBAs

Ivan Gabriel Leis. Courtesy photo

The Challenge-based Innovation (CBI) course is a 12-week, multiple-team course created by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, Switzerland. The course’s fourth iteration last fall was its most successful, attracting more attention from investors than ever and going a long way toward fulfilling CERN’s mission to produce — or at least give a platform to — a slate of useful technologies.

“Three years ago at CERN they were thinking about running courses in calibration with universities, with the goal of finding applications for technologies that they have developed and researched,” says Lotta Hassi, ESADE lecturer in innovation and data sciences and coordinator, with Kyriaki Papageorgiou, of the CBI course with CERN. “At ESADE we felt this was a good opportunity for us to partner up with a design school and engineering school locally. It’s not just finding applications for new technologies, it’s also addressing social challenges with those technologies. It’s about bringing these aspects together.”

The course is treated “like one of CERN’s experiments,” Hassi says with a laugh. Five teams are each given a broad-stroke challenge — for example, “How can we create a system for replicating human sensory experience over distance?” — then set loose to conduct research, provide technological solutions, oversee and ensure the feasibility of the project, and facilitate the usability and experience of the product or service. CERN opens its facilities for their use, Papageorgiou notes, and mentors and groups offer expertise and counsel.

“The whole objective of this is trying to bring the technologies or the knowledge at CERN to serve the humanity at large,” Hassi tells Poets&Quants. “This is the real objective behind it.”

NEXT STEP: FINANCING 

Of the many fascinating student projects that have emerged from the CBI course at CERN, only one has been picked up by investors: ElecTree, the brainchild of Kakulapati, Reis, and their seven teammates — a pair of designers from Barcelona’s IED design school, two engineers from Polytechnic University of Catalonia, and three engineering students from Italy. The ElecTree team — Team Bohr, named for the Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner — was challenged to use technology to “improve the living conditions of refugees, displaced and other people in need of emergency temporary sheltering.” Their solution: a modular, extendable, plug-n-play intelligent grid solution that “optimizes electricity allocation by prioritizing critical needs like those of hospitals, schools, and administrative buildings while addressing needs of individual shelters,” according to ElecTree’s website.

ElecTree’s grid allows the addition of multiple sources of electricity, and it is flexible and affordable, costing the equivalent of less than $6 per refugee — about the cost of a Starbucks latte. It is also “as safe and easy as plugging in an extension cord in a regular building,” according to the company’s website. No wonder, then, that Global Humanitarian Labs, a partnership of leading humanitarian organizations, and other investors have expressed interest in ElecTree’s product.

“We are currently making efforts to raise enough money to test our prototype and make it into an actual sales-ready product,” Kakulapati says. “We have a prototype that demonstrates how it works and we also have an online interactive simulation on our website that allows you to see how the logic is supposed to work when you actually connect it.

“So our next step is to raise enough funds over the next year and develop it into a product and then deploy that in our first refugee camp. ESADE is giving us the space to work as soon as we are set up for it, and hopefully we should be able to start working in the next couple of months.”