NEW ORLEANS — While New Orleans attracted an influx of 20-something entrepreneurs from across the nation following Hurricane Katrina, it was a 71-year-old Cajun from Cut Off who walked away with the $50,000 prize on Monday, the first day of the fifth annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.
Webster Pierce demonstrated his “Wave Robber” contraption to a panel of judges at Gallier Hall for the third annual Water Challenge, a collaborative initiative between the Idea Village and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
Starting with 29 contestants, the four finalists pitched their products, including an “Oyster Tracker App,” a technology that protects land from erosion while also growing vegetation, and a consulting and data collection service that focuses on the relationship between managing floodwater and water quality.
Through his company Pierce Industries, contest winner Pierce invented, produced and tested and patented a shelf-like structure that reduces the energy from waves while trapping sediment and building land.
The event was moderated by Harry Shearer, who stressed the increasing importance of living with water, in the face of both drought and flood. “They’re not just neat ideas,” Shearer said. “They are crucial to the survival of this area.”
Shearer also joked that he met the criteria for again being invited to moderate the event because “they checked my medical records, and it turns out I am 80 percent water.”
Presenting the Oyster Tracker App, husband and wife team Brady and Alex Skaggs, of ABS Technologies, pitched their idea for collecting and supplying real-time data on water quality to governmental entities and corporations, ensuring that oysters are safe and traceable to Louisiana.
Bari Blanks, of EMS Green, pitched a product that uses an interlocked system of bags filled with soil and planted with vegetation to protect shorelines, levees and banks from erosion while at the same time restoring the land.
Miriam Belblidia and Jennifer Roberts, of Water Works LC3, talked about bridging the gap between flood events and the pollutants carried through runoff during flood events through their nonprofit that works to collect data and track sources of pollution at a neighborhood level.
Pierce said his inspiration for the winning device, which uses holes covered with flaps to break apart the waves while accumulating sediment behind the artificial wall, came from Christmas trees.
While the annual collection of Christmas trees to deposit in the marshes for restoration efforts has debatable effectiveness, Pierce said, his idea incorporates what works about the trees, but addresses the problem — the fact that the trees disperse and decompose over time. The trees are not effective enough, but the principal behind them is, Pierce said.
And to Pierce, the consequences of land loss could not have more gravity. Pierce depicted Cut Off as being located at the heart of the problem. “If we don’t address this, there won’t be a Cut Off,” Pierce said. Pierce described the land loss he has seen in his seven decades in south Louisiana as “unreal” and “sickening.”
He also acknowledged the problem as a national and international one.
The Wave Robber is lightweight, buoyant and allows ecological exchange—unlike rock barriers, Pierce told the judges during his pitch. In addition, he said that the cost can be significantly reduced because the barriers can be reused by being moved further out into the water once the sediment has built up behind the wall and is stabilized with vegetation.
It not only stops erosion, it reverses it, Pierce said.
Pierce showed the judges photographs of the barriers being tested in labs and in the fields and described his potential customers as the government, corporations and individuals.
He said he will use the grant seed money for research and design, manufacturing and testing and to continue to move the business forward.
After being announced as the winner, Pierce said he was speechless — a rare thing for a Cajun. The grant will help progress the product he’d been working on for the past four years, a product that “could possibly save the coast, and areas that include New Orleans,” he said.
Tim Williamson, co-founder and CEO of Ideal Village, said that entrepreneurs bring jobs, revenue, “but most importantly it means that we are building a system of retaining talent and attracting talent” as well as building a sustainable, global network.
Walter Isaacson, who gave a keynote address during the Water Challenge, said that New Orleans has a 300-year history of connecting creativity to business.
The creativity stems from the diversity of the city and distinguishes it from other places, Isaacson said. “The first thing Steve Jobs told me,” said Isaacson, who wrote a biography on Jobs, “was that connecting creativity to technology and business provided the greatest value; otherwise it’s just a standard commodity or product.”
Entrepreneur Week events continue through Friday, culminating at the Big Idea extravaganza featuring 15 of New Orleans’ most promising startup ventures. More information can be found at http://www.ideavillage.org.