This teen entrepreneur’s cardboard bed is a remarkably simple solution for some extremely difficult situations. TechWatch’s Emily McDaid reports.
A motivated second-year undergraduate at Queen’s University Belfast is aiming to help those in dire need during natural disasters, or refugees who’ve arrived exhausted in camps, by providing beds made from cardboard.
Called Em-Bed, this cardboard bed doubles as a shipping container that can be packed with the types of goods that are desperately needed in disasters – fresh toiletries, food and basic medical supplies.
Last year alone, 98.5m people were affected by natural disasters.
“My first thought was that, during a disaster, people need non-perishable, canned food,” said Em-Bed founder Eve McLelland. “But there are many charities that already have their own food distribution systems that are well-established. This leaves disaster victims in desperate need of other goods, such as toiletries or clean underwear.”
McLelland launched the product during her A-level in design and technology.
“I thought cardboard was a fascinating material because it’s so strong and yet so lightweight. So I wanted to design something with cardboard,” she said.
Em-Bed has an impressive revenue model. From each bed sold, £3 will be donated to homeless charities.
The beds can be sold flat-packed – costing the charities less – or they can come pre-packed with supplies.
The market potential goes beyond natural disasters. The cardboard beds can be used by homeless charities when the weather turns cold and extra people need to be sheltered.
They can be also sold at festivals, and revellers will know some of their cash has gone to disaster relief.
Another potential market for Em-Bed is air travel. Weather conditions can leave thousands of people stranded at the airport, like in 2010, when an Icelandic volcano grounded planes for weeks on end.
“It can be part of the airline’s corporate social responsibility goals, to take care of their customers while part of their cost goes to charity,” said McLelland.
Starting out young
Now 19 years old, McLelland got started on an entrepreneurial track at a young age. “I was studying for my A-level when the Nepal earthquake struck,” she said. “I could see that natural disasters were on the rise. I was trying to think of how to help these people.
“I got started on designing [the Em-Bed] while doing my degree and now I’m pushing for it to be launched, after we obtain funding of around £15,000.
Right now, McLelland is in the process of setting up meetings with NGOs and charities. Though it can be challenging, it is essential.
“It’s critical that I get their feedback on the design because they’re the ones on the ground,” she said.
The young entrepreneur and her socially conscious idea is a finalist in the Engineering category of the Invent Awards. “Competitions like Invent are wonderful because it’s great to get the feedback and it helps me to keep exploring ways to make the prototype better.”
The Em-Bed prototype was built with the help of Frederick James, a cardboard packaging company in Belfast. McLelland has also received support through her university.
“Queen’s University Students Union Enterprise Department has been brilliant,” she said. “They ran a Dragons’ Den, in which I placed joint-first. I also won their ‘What’s the Big Idea?’ competition in December 2015.
“The idea is that businesses will be spun out from these programmes, and they’re just brilliant at providing that motivation.”
By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch
A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch