• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

To Start Up Or To SU-Up?

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Our upcoming Kickstarter campaign will provide us with the promotional push and funding needed to take our social enterprise to the next level.

By Melissa McCoy (Partner & Vice President of Engineering, TOHL)

After graduating in May, I had two choices: I could head down to Chile and join my three partners in developing TOHL, our water social enterprise, or I could travel to Silicon Valley to participate in Singularity University’s 10-week Graduate Studies summer program.

Both were attractive choices, but choosing either could mean giving up the opportunity of a lifetime.

My TOHL partners, Ben Cohen, Travis Horsley, and Apoorv Sinha, and I had been working for over a year on developing TOHL’s technology: a low-cost water pipeline installation method that has the potential to connect the nearly 1 billion people without clean water living in remote rural areas a connection to this life-giving fluid.

TOHL installs pipeline systems between the freshwater source and the community in need by un-spooling long segments of tubing from our large, uniquely-designed spooling device attached to a helicopter or other vehicle. After we have installed this pipeline system, water is then pumped and purified through.

Over the year prior to implementation of our technology, we worked hard in tackling technical challenges, refining our business model through competitions like the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, and raising $50,000 in seed capital. After being accepted into the Start-up Chile incubator program, Ben began operations in Chile in March, Travis and I were excited about the opportunity to join him in May upon finishing school.

TOHL has allowed me to combine my skills in chemical engineering with my desire for social impact, and I had eagerly awaited the day when I would see my work tangibly and directly impacting people’s lives through the actual implementation of our technology on-the-ground in action. I was ready to DO something REAL.

On the other hand, Singularity University was also a dream come true. I could go spend a summer at NASA Ames Research Park in California and be taught by Nobel Prize winners, millionaire entrepreneurs, and high achieving peers how to impact a billion people in 10 years. On top of this, I would form a project team that would create an impactful product or business which could likely turn into a social startup of its own. What more could a 22-year-old girl bent on becoming a social entrepreneur want?

It was my painful fear of inaction and not creating real change in the world that made me question Singularity University. In some ways, I felt in attending that I would delay and possibly lose the opportunity to develop the essential entrepreneurial skills needed to start a social enterprise that can only be learned through real-word experience.

I feared that I would give up building a business that would provide low-cost water access to rural communities, so that I could sit in a classroom in Silicon Valley listening to TED lecturers telling me about the impact I should be making.

The decisive moment came when I spoke with Alfredo Zolezzi, one of our TOHL Advisors and a well-known Chilean inventor, who told me that having a founding member at SU was exactly what TOHL needed. We needed to understand the upcoming technologies that would disrupt our industry, know about other ground-breaking water technologies, network with the biggest players and organizations in our space, and gain access to key investor and partner networks.

Moreover, we needed to get the appropriate business and entrepreneurial training to run a company which four engineers from Georgia Tech could arguably use help on. All of this he assured me could be provided by Singularity University (SU).

Now, closing in on the final weeks of Singularity University, I have to say Alfredo was right.

I was able to capture key contacts, knowledge and resources that have been valuable to TOHL and my personal development. Even with me working remotely from California, Apoorva stationed in Canada, and Ben and Travis running hard in Chile, our TOHL team has filed a patent on the system, constructed a prototype, completed a first system installation with the Red Cross, and almost finished contract negotiations to install for SQM, the mining company I actually worked with in Chile for five months during college.

With the support of Singularity University, our upcoming Kickstarter campaign will provide us with the promotional push and funding needed to take our social enterprise to the next level.

In the end, I didn’t have to choose my startup or SU. I could have the cake and eat it too.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Melissa McCoy is a Partner and Vice President of Engineering for TOHL, a social enterprise that provides low-cost water infrastructure to remote rural areas, disaster relief and other industrial applications. She attended Singularity University’s 10-week Graduate Studies Program at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley. In college, Melissa founded Enterprise to Empower. She holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and Economics from Georgia Tech. Follow her on Twitter at @melissa_mccoy.