Social Entrepreneurs Find A Home At Boulder’s Watson Institute

By John Spina
Daily Times-Call, Longmont, Colo.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The Watson Institute in Boulder specializes in incubating socially focused entrepreneurs and their businesses. It has been the perfect fit for Nzambi Matee who is focused on transforming discarded plastics into bricks that can be used to build affordable housing.

Daily Times-Call, Longmont, Colo.

When Nzambi Matee noticed plastics piling up all around her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya , she organized a group of volunteers to start cleaning up, but her enterprising spirit wouldn’t let her stop there.

Instead of simply thinking about the waste as just that, Matee began to see it as a potential resource; she just wasn’t quite sure how she would go about transforming it into something useful.

Little did she know the search for that answer would take her nearly 9,000 miles around the world to Boulder.

Her journey began, as they often do these days, on YouTube. Matee saw a young Russian scientist named Roman Sebekin creating pavement tiles from plastic waste and thought if he can make tiles capable of withstanding the weight of cars, why couldn’t she transform the discarded plastics into bricks capable of building affordable housing — another major issue plaguing her country?

With this vision in her mind, Matee applied to the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology to learn the scientific processes for creating these bricks. By the time she graduated four years later, she had done just that. The problem was that she had no idea she was going to manufacture thousands of them, let alone scale a business capable of disseminating them around the country.

“I could tell you how to make one brick, but I couldn’t tell you how to make 1,000 bricks,” she said. “I didn’t even know what a brick should cost.”

Even though her product won major contests like the Kenya Climate Innovation Center’s Climate Launchpad and had already secured a couple contracts, without a business plan, banks, investors and even grant administrators decided that her company, Gjenge Makers , was too high of a risk.

After the last bank rejected her, Matee took her laptop to a coffee shop and literally googled ‘funding for startups.’ Lo and behold, a new school in Boulder called The Watson Institute popped up, billed as specializing in incubating socially focused entrepreneurs and their businesses.

As she scrolled through Watson’s website she saw one of its alumni, Jack Hisard , had received start-up funding for his idea to start a mobile medical clinic in Kenya while he was a scholar there at age 19. Today that clinic has developed into a hospital that has served over 35,000 people .

“I was like, I know this guy and I know his project,” she said. “So I was like, I think this is where I’m going to get my funding and I started to apply.”

The business around the science
Along with a remarkably accomplished base of alumni, the Watson Institute also allowed Matee to save tens of thousands of dollars by forgoing more traditional business schools and learning the basics of running a business in half the time.

In addition, rather than a typical class schedule where students sit in classrooms and study textbooks in hopes that the information will apply to their own business one day, most of the students’ time at The Watson Institute is spent with the school’s 70 expert mentors .

“With my manufacturing mentor I was able to learn what I needed in terms of machinery and warehouse space, the rate I need to make bricks and how much it will cost in terms of lean production,” she said. “From there, my financial mentors said if this is how many bricks you’re making per hour, then this is how much material you’ll use and this is how much labor you’ll use, so this is how you’ll determine what one brick will cost.”

For example, one of her mentors, Steve Whitaker , who started two tech manufacturing companies in Boulder, Continental Control Systems and Kietek Systems, discussed whether it’s more efficient for Matee to buy plastics from an already established recycling center, or for her to just start her own.

While she ultimately decided she could use the system of volunteers she had already established to keep costs down, it was these kinds of conversations that got Matee thinking about the business around the science and not the other way around.

“I like to say that I was born ready, but when I came to Watson I thought ‘Oh, maybe I still have some more work to do,'” she said. “Right now I’m closing funding and while I would have been able to do it without Watson, it would have taken a bit longer. If I could go back, I would only do one or two years at college then come to Watson for two years. If I had, I would have launched in 2015 and saved three years.”

With experienced mentors in finance, marketing, manufacturing, and corporate law, Matee has officially incorporated her business, created the legal structure for investors and employees, identified manufacturing options, developed a marketing strategy and determined a growth strategy based on the size and response of the market — all within less than a year.

Having a more robust business plan, Matee has already secured three investors who have pledged $55,000, and hopes to reach her $105,000 goal on Dec. 7 , just days before she’s scheduled to return to Kenya, during the Watson Institute’s fall summit at 5:30 p.m. in Chautauqua Park’s Grand Assembly Hall .

With funding and a strong business strategy by 2019, she expects to be able to build two-bedroom, one bathroom homes in Kenya for just $5,000. Her work can be seen on social media @gjengemakersltd.

Though Matee’s journey is inspiring, she’s just one of just 30 students at the Watson Institute each semester who are working on building disruptive social enterprises.

In this year’s class alone, Diane Delava , from Belgium, is working on an online tool to help businesses track their carbon footprint and develop more sustainable practices. Ricardo Rocha , from Mexico, is developing an app called Abarrotes Bondadosa that delivers groceries to underserved populations living in food deserts.

Charlotte Vitak , from Washington D.C., is creating a company called My Story , which brings speakers to schools and community centers around the county to share stories of discrimination capable of breaking down barriers and building stronger communities.

Despite their different backgrounds and areas of interest, they all say Watson was the safety net they needed to take risks and transform their ideas into a business.

As for Watson’s leadership, they believe there’s no better place to fulfill the institute’s mission to “trailblaze lives as innovators and contribute to solving the toughest challenges facing the world.”

“We feel so lucky to be in Boulder,” Brin Enterkin, the executive director of the Boulder campus , said.

“There’s a long entrepreneurial history here and a lot of forward thinking, socially conscious people because of CU. It’s incredible. We’re right in the thick of it.”

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