From recycled houses to solar-powered fridges: 5 tech startups changing the world

Used plastic bottles are being turned into clothes
Used plastic bottles are being turned into clothes

In neighborhoods across Colombia, there's a great need to build more shelters and schools. In response, local startup Conceptos Plásticos developed a plan to build those structures cheaply and sustainably by turning recycled plastic and rubber waste into bricks.

This innovative approach helped Conceptos Plásticos win $300,000 in funding this week at the annual The Venture competition held in New York City. The contest, launched by whiskey brand Chivas Regal in 2014, is a global search to find entrepreneurs with ideas to help improve society.

Conceptos Plásticos was one of five finalists (among 2,500 applicants across 27 countries) vying for a portion of the $1 million funding prize. The startup received the biggest percentage of the prize, which was determined by four judges' votes. Each judge assessed the companies based on their ability to create sustainable change through a viable business model and potential to scale.

"It feels wonderful that people recognize what we are doing," Oscar Mendez, an architect from Bogota, Colombia and founder of Conceptos Plásticos, told CNN. "We want to take waste out of landfills and use it to make houses for people in need."

Related: How IBM is making plastic less toxic

Conceptos Plásticos' production process, which was developed in 2014, involves melting plastic waste and pouring it into a mold to produce blocks that connect together like Lego pieces. This allows communities to physically connect the walls of houses together.

venture plastic brick
Construction bricks made from recycled plastic and rubber.

Mendez said a one-family home, with space for about four people, takes no construction experience to put together and only about five days to build. Meanwhile, a shelter for 14 families -- which can house 15 people -- takes about 10 days to build (and also doesn't require construction experience). Because the bricks easily lock together, the assembly process requires only a hammer to attach them.

In addition, the recycled bricks are about 20% - 40% cheaper than using traditional cement and concrete to make houses.

In two years, Conceptos Plásticos has already helped construct 10 houses and one temporary shelter that houses 42 families. In total, the startup has also recycled more than 200 tons of plastic.

Mendez said the $300,000 will be used to help Conceptos Plásticos expand the program to other areas across Central America, especially in regions with housing shortages.

Related: This device can diagnose malaria in 5 seconds

But Conceptos Plásticos isn't the only startup with impressive, innovative plans to address social problems in communities. UK-based WeFarm, which won $200,000, has developed a free SMS-based platform that enables farmers around the world with no internet access to share information, tips and questions.

venture plastic brick wall
Building a wall using bricks from recycled plastic and rubber.

With this level of connectivity and communication, the goal is to help farming communities improve their production and livelihoods. WeFarm's mission is to connect one million farmers to its network within the next 12 months.

Meanwhile, Israeli startup EyeControl -- which won $100,000 -- was recognized for inventing a device that allows people with ALS and other diseases that restrict muscle control to better communicate.

The device is designed to translate eye movements into verbal communication. It works with the help of an infrared camera that connects to the frame of a pair of glasses, as well as a small computer. Together, they're able to identify and translate blinks and movements of the user's eyes into commands, which are then broadcast via a speaker. The startup has also developed a visual keyboard to compose sentences.

Related: The company turning 4 billion plastic bottles into clothes

Wakami -- a startup from Guatemala that produces and sells handmade fashion accessories made by women in 16 rural communities -- took home $100,000 at the event. Its products are sold to retailers in 20 countries, and the money is invested back into the community to support businesses across Guatemala.

The startup, which already has 500 women in its network, gives them the training and resources to start their businesses. It also connects them to vendors around the world to sell their products.

Lastly, German-based startup Coolar won $50,000 for its portable refrigerator powered by warm water, generated through solar heat. The company is hoping its cooling system enables doctors to preserve vaccines and medicine in off-grid areas. Coolar is already doing pilot tests in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the Philippines with Doctors Without Borders. It hopes to sell 150 fridges by the end of the year.

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