A three-day celebration of entrepreneurship, innovation, and sustainability, Common Pitch Chile, came to a dramatic close on Saturday night as eight start-ups took to the stage at Teatro Huemul to compete for the festival’s top spot – and US$35,000 (CLP$16.8 million) in prize money.
Tubing Operations for Humanitarian Logistics (TOHL) was born when four Georgia Tech students saw a major problem hampering disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.
“We saw a BBC report saying that although there was water available, humanitarian workers couldn’t get it into the city because they didn’t have access,” Benjamin Cohen, CEO and founding partner of TOHL told This is Chile. “So we thought of a concept to quickly gain access – using helicopters.”
It was an elegantly simple idea set to revolutionize the way that water is transported.
As opposed to fixed infrastructure, TOHL lays semi-permanent pipelines, allowing for water to be delivered to an area rapidly, and over rough terrain.
“We are a start-up, so we are still testing the waters, but there are a lot of potential applications for this technology,” said Cohen.
“We are socially motivated, so what we do primarily is bring water to houses, in rural areas that don’t have access to it, or to communities that are receiving water in a non-sustainable way, by getting it delivered by trucks, for example. But the technology is not confined to this function, and in the future it will be applied to mining and other industries like oil and gas, and in fighting forest fires.”
Social and environmental commitment
Despite coming from areas as diverse as health, architecture, infrastructure, and communications technologies, the uniting factor among the eight finalists was their commitment toward making the world a better place.
“All eight finalists were championing the same business model – one that promotes social enterprise – so although it was a competition, there was a real team atmosphere at the event,” Cohen said.
But at the end of the day, there could only be one winner.
“I think TOHL won because it really met the five criteria of the competition; sustainability, social impact, viability, idea quality, and presentation, and also because of what we are doing here in Chile,” said Cohen.
“We are helping to raise the quality of life among poorer people, in a way that is not only financially sustainable, but environmentally sustainable, providing a social good, and raising the quality of life. It’s a big idea, using revolutionary technology, and it’s going to change the world.”
Winner of the People’s Choice award was Papinotas, a start-up by Chilean Natalia Espinoza, that aims to connect parents with teachers using text message technology.
Both Papinotas and TOHL are supported by Socialab, a non-profit support network for social entrepreneurs set up by Chile’s Julián Ugarte.
“It goes to show what great work Socialab is doing with the people that they support,” Cohen said of the double triumph. “They really get behind all of their projects, and consider themselves a part of those projects, and it shows the passion and quality of ideas that they are supporting.”
The Chilean connection
Chile’s connection to TOHL goes further back than both its triumph at Common Pitch and connection to Socialab – it emerged from the Start-up Chile program.
“After the Chilean earthquake a friend said that we should apply to Start-up Chile, not only because it’s so seismically active, but also because it is an innovation hub for Latin America, has a thriving economy, a lot of rural communities that need improved access to water, and a big mining industry,” said Cohen.
And the Atlanta native is adamant that Chile – currently the only country in which TOHL has operations – will remain an integral base for the company, even as it “goes global.”
“As far as Common Pitch goes, it’s not just the money you win, it’s the networks you gain,” Cohen said. “And this is something that all the finalists will have access to; publicity, brand building and the creation of a social enterprise model.”
“But for us specifically, the prize money will just make things faster – whereas before we were limited in our growth, now we can start to build a team here in Chile and start building the pipelines that will get water to people who need it.”
By Joe Hinchliffe