Josh McCauley is the mastermind behind creating affordable, build-it-yourself housing options using recycled plastic that would end up in landfills.
As reported in the Athens-Banner Herald, McCauley worked in an architectural design and small manufacturing firm where he learned the basics of designing in 3D computer programs. He was a history education major in college, but he wasn’t working in construction. Even after living in Athens for more than a decade, he had no ties to the University of Georgia.
But one conversation with family friend and UGA alumnus Peter Dale helped connect McCauley with the university resources that could help him turn his idea into a reality.
Dale introduced McCauley to David Sutherland, a senior lecturer in innovation and entrepreneurship, and at one of Sutherland’s classes, McCauley met Ty Frix, a UGA alumnus and lecturer in the Terry College of Business.
While Frix was working for Innovation Gateway, UGA’s research commercialization office that helps researchers and community members like McCauley develop their ideas into actual businesses, he introduced McCauley to Tim Martin, the associate director of the UGA Startup Program, and Kevin Wu, a design engineer with the program.
In 2017, Innovation Gateway received a grant from the National Science Foundation to create a program on campus that helps startup businesses. Innovation Corps, or ICorps, assists entrepreneurs with figuring out whether there’s a market for their product and who their potential customers are.
“They say, ‘I’m interested in creating a startup company and this is what the product would be.’ Then we basically tell them not to talk about their product anymore; talk about who you would sell this to, and go talk to them,” said Martin.
During the four-week-long accelerator program, McCauley was to do at least 20 interviews with potential clients. After successful completion, each of the 30 teams receives $3,000 to continue the customer discovery process. Since 2017, 49 teams have graduated from the program.
“That whole process was different to me because I don’t have a business background at all,” McCauley said. “Through the interviews, it really helped shape and narrow down the idea from ‘it would be cool to do this’ to ‘what’s my next step?’”
He printed 3D models before getting involved in the program to show how the plastic blocks he envisioned would snap together to make the walls of a moderately-sized home. The final structures look like a honeycomb, which inspired the name of the company, COMB.
Martin and Wu helped McCauley write a provisional patent and showed him how finding investors could help reach his goal.
“My goal was to see how I could give this tool away to people who need it,” he said. “But I realized through the program that it’s not always an either/or choice of doing something good or making money and that I can use any profits from COMB to give back.”
Now, with Martin and Wu’s guidance, McCauley is going to meet with the Department of Community Affairs in Atlanta to share the project with them and get the office’s input on zoning and building codes before fundraising begins. He already has a manufacturer in Hartwell that can produce the blocks.
“If Josh’s idea takes off, he could develop a company that could hire people locally; it could be a sustainable business,” Martin said. “It could have an economic impact on the community. At Innovation Gateway, we want to be a good neighbor to the community. We want people in the community like Josh to know what we can offer and how we can help them build their company.”
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