In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, a Puerto Rican couple build a low-cost energy startup to improve struggling business climate
On the morning of September 20, 2017, as the roar of Hurricane Maria gave way to an ominous silence under an overcast sky, Vanessa Carballido Clerch and her parents made their way down a residential street in Guaynabo, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico, back to the home they had evacuated in the middle of the night.
Carballido Clerch and her husband Francisco Laboy Colondres had decided that she and their 7-year-old son would ride out the storm at her parents’ house in Guaynabo, believing it would be safer than their apartment near the ocean.
But during the night, water started to seep into the house. Carballido Clerch and her cousin ran around frantically unplugging electronics, turning off the breakers, and placing passports and other essentials on tables as the sewage water—identifiable by its repugnant smell—continued to rise.
Furniture and everyday household objects floated throughout the house. Outside, the 155 mph winds pounded the windows and bent the trees. The idea of going out in the Category 4 hurricane was terrifying, but they knew they couldn’t stay inside.
Everything was lost
Over the following months, the complete collapse of the island’s infrastructure led to a profound humanitarian crisis, with a death toll that rose to 2,975 as the extended lack of power crippled key facilities like hospitals and nursing homes.
The waters had receded, but Carballido Clerch’s parents had lost everything.
Carballido Clerch spent the next month with her parents, throwing out everything they had owned, painstakingly cleaning the house to make it livable again, and patiently salvaging what they could.
Her father, Jorge, had fled Cuba for Puerto Rico in 1991, convinced that his family would have a better future there.
Now, as they became aware of the extent of the damage across the island, Carballido Clerch said she wondered if she would have to leave everything, too.
A dream re-energized
During the past year, she and Laboy Colondres had been trying to launch a renewable energy startup. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, households in Puerto Rico pay much more per kilowatt-hour than in the States, businesses pay just over double, and industries almost triple.
On an island with 44 percent of its residents living below the poverty line at that time, an almost 12 percent unemployment rate, and a steadily declining population, energy costs hindered the ability of existing and new businesses to succeed and affected the island’s ability to attract new businesses and industries.
Laboy Colondres and Carballido Clerch envisioned a business that would provide an alternative to the expensive island grid.
Read more about how Francisco Laboy Colondres and Vanessa Carballido Clerch realized their mission at uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/journeys-innovation.