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Student Inventors: Gabrielle Palermo and G3Box

Gabrielle Palermo, Susanna Young, and Clay Tyler assembling a G3Box. Photo Courtesy Arizona State University

Ever dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur? If so, you’re in good company – over half of U.S. millennials (ages 18 to 34) say they want to start a business or already have done so, according to a recent survey from the Kaufmann Foundation. Even more exciting is the fact that nowadays, starting a business does not necessitate leaving school, as more and more universities are striving to accommodate entrepreneurial students.

In this new eGFI blog series, we bring you four inspiring stories of undergraduate engineering students who have successfully patented their original ideas, teamed up with classmates and professors to launch businesses, and navigated the startup world, all while keeping up with their coursework.

So step aside, Bill Gates – the days of dropout turned entrepreneur may be numbered.

Delivering Hope: Gabrielle Palermo and G3Box

Undergraduate courses need not focus explicitly on entrepreneurship to ignite student interest — and foster schoolwide collaboration. Consider Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, a service-learning program that originated in 1995 at Purdue and now has outposts on 20 U.S. campuses and more than 30 high schools. (EPICS High was featured in a December 2010 Prism article.)

At Arizona State University, which began offering the program in 2009, a series of three courses guide student teams through the steps of creating and deploying original engineering projects to help local or international communities and nonprofits. That’s how biomedical engineering major Gabrielle Palermo came to join forces with Susanna Young, a first-year grad student in mechanical engineering. They teamed up after discovering they’d been working independently on the same EPICS project: refurbishing empty shipping containers for use in disaster relief and as mobile medical clinics in developing countries.

The professional aspects proved as engaging as the technical challenges. “Being part of a team, learning how to present… how to network,” says Palermo. “You’re just learning all these skills that you wouldn’t get in a regular engineering class.” With teammates John Walters, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, and Clay Tyler, who is pursuing a master’s in the same field, Palermo and Young pooled their resources and applied for funding through the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, a program that provides $200,000 annually to ASU student business ventures. Their idea, called the G3Box (the three G’s stand for “Generating Global Good”), won $10,000 in seed money. The team was thrilled. “It was like, yeah, people really like the idea,” Palermo recalls. “You can get kind of far with this!”

G3Box was born from a need to bring safe, modern, and sustainable medical care to underdeveloped countries, especially those suffering from high maternal death rates. Many hospitals and international aid organizations lack the space and resources to expand their services, the ASU team discovered. That’s where G3Box’s key innovation comes in. Ports worldwide have a surplus of large empty shipping boxes that are prohibitively expensive to send back. By outfitting these spaces with medical equipment, potable water, and solar panels, the team is repurposing waste while providing accessible medical care for those in need.

The G3Box team describes the venture as a “more than profit organization” on its Facebook page. Indeed, the business is a model of social entrepreneurship: For every six boxes sold for disaster relief, G3Box can donate a maternity clinic to the developing world, where 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur. Palermo and her team have been hustling to finish their first maternity-clinic prototype for shipment to Kenya, where the maternal death rate is 50 times that of the United States. “Its main goal is to save as many lives as possible,” she says.

The team’s passion and hard work continue to pay off. Recently they were named “College Entrepreneurs of the Year 2011” by Entrepreneur magazine. In the future, G3Box plans to provide medical training to recipients and also may explore other uses for the shipping crates, such as mobile classrooms or libraries. Although Palermo and her teammates, like many young entrepreneurs, did not expect to start a business in college, she claims that G3Box developed naturally out of their shared interest in improving the world. “We all have the same values: trying to help people. I think all of us went into engineering for that reason,” she reflects. “It’s just interesting that we took that, spun it a bit, and now we’re trying to run a business.”

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