Gabrielle Palermo, a Gilbert resident and Arizona State University junior, recently won Entrepreneur Magazine's 2011 College Entrepreneur of the Year Award after helping create a hybrid for-profit and nonprofit business called G3Box.
While the honor is in Palermo's name, she is accepting the award alongside the project's co-founders - John Walters of Glendale, a senior mechanical engineering major, and Susanna Young of Ahwatukee and Clay Tyler of Chandler, both first-year engineering graduate students. This month, the four travel to California to attend an awards luncheon to accept the national award, part of Entrepreneur Magazine's efforts to recognizes outstanding established, emerging and college entrepreneurs.
Featured in this month's publication, Palermo received a $5,000 grant, presented by the UPS Store. But the greatest award will be all of the networking the team can do and the expose the company receives.
Three of the five finalists for the award are from Arizona State University. The other two ASU finalists were Boson Inc. and Ellens Technologies.
"I wasn't thinking I would be running a business while I was in college," said Palermo, a biomedical engineering major, in August.
It's a sentiment that Young and Tyler echo. Engineering didn't initially seem like it would be applied to owning a business.
"I joined engineering to blow things up," Tyler said with a laugh. "But I've really developed an interest in entrepreneurship - and it's fun. It's not a boring job. I was getting tired of the theoretical learning."
The "G3" of G3Box originates from "Generating Global Containers for Good." The company seeks to convert steel shipping containers to medical-grade, specialized, portable clinics, Palermo said.
Originally part of a class project, the G3Box is now transitioning from a business proposal to an operating business as it converts its first container into a maternity clinic that is projected to be completed by the end of April.
Money from the award is slated to help the business create its second prototype, Palermo said.
The group has known they were the recipients of the award since September, but were not allowed to tell anyone until it was officially announced by the magazine.
"It's hard not to be able to tell family and friends and thank them for their support," Palermo said. "It's been a very humbling experience, having all of those people vote for us."
"Now that we can tell people, it's like we've won all over again," Young added.
One of the major influences to the direction of the project was when Tyler and Young travelled to Africa last summer to see what kind of medical needs the people had and to see if their project had the potential to match those needs.
"It really gave us motivation and a new perspective," Young said about her trip. "I met women who knew other women who died in childbirth. It made me more motivated and to think, ‘This is why we stay up an extra hour.' It's so easy to think, ‘I'm a student, I have a job (outside of 3GBox), I'm busy.' It gives us the motivation to work hard."
More than that, they also saw firsthand how converted containers were being used in Africa, Tyler said. It proved that there would be a need for their product.
While they were there, they learned other lessons as well.
"I saw the ill effects of just handing out money," Tyler said. Giving people straight charity often doesn't allow them to see the value of an item or give them the self-satisfaction of working for it, he said.
"It goes back to the old quote, ‘Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for life,'" Palermo said.
"There's a humanitarian aspect to our business, where a portion of our profits will go to fund our non-profit component," Young said.
Through the non-profit division of the company, G3Box hopes to help subsidize its product to charities, working on the assumption that not all non-profits will be able to afford such an expensive product.
With the current business plan, developed as part of the Edson Entrepreneur Program at ASU, the company would have manufacturing jobs both in the United States and manufacturing partnerships in the other countries it would potentially operate in. Additionally, it would provide jobs in the medical field in those countries.
"We're trying to create industry," Tyler said.
Part of that plan is to return some of the manufacturing jobs lost over the years back to the United States, Young said.
"We don't want to just help women giving birth in Africa, but also be able to help create jobs here," Palermo said. It's a sentiment that Young echoes, adding that it's also in line with the company's humanitarian efforts.
"If you create jobs, it creates wealth for the whole country," Young said. "The surplus our company makes is given away in a constructive way."
The company Containers 2 Clinics does a similar thing with shipping containers by renovating it into maternity clinics, but Palermo said that G3Box will be different because it plans to have many different clinic types.
G3Box will eventually provide vaccination, maternity and emergency disaster relief clinics, Palermo said.
The team sees potential clients in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Red Cross, which could use the clinics during environmental disasters when traditional medical facilities might be unavailable or unusable.
"It's a clinic that could be up and running in a few hours," Palermo said. "Here (in the U.S.) it would be easy to transport."
Additionally, it could be used in the U.S. in rural areas as an interim solution, Palermo said. Some larger hospitals are looking to expand to smaller, rural communities without access to medical care. However, rather than build a building in an area that might not permanently support a clinic, these hospitals could use G3Box as a semi-permanent solution, she said.
"We want to present them with a cost effective solution," Tyler said. "Admittedly, it's not the greatest permanent solution."
What is permanent is the team's resolve to keep the company up and running. The goal is to have a few sells by the end of the year, Young said. They are projecting to become profitable within five years.
"We have set goals for ourselves," she said. "Even as things alter them, we definitely have goals."
"It's turned into a goal - how many lives can we save in five years?" Palermo questioned.
The G3Box project was also funded from a grant from ASU's Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative.
Created when Orin and Charlene Edson donated $5.4 million to ASU, the program grants money to student entrepreneurs, while also providing them with the skills needed to launch a successful business.
Students from any school or major within ASU are eligible to apply to the program.
To learn more about the company, visit the website at www.g3box.org