NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - When Abu Ezz’s wife went into labor in 2014, the couple couldn’t get to the hospital. They lived in Jordan’s Zaatari Camp, a bustling community of 80,000 Syrian refugees, with few means of reliable transportation. The ambulance that Ezz called never showed, and his newborn son died on the spot.
If he had owned a bicycle, Ezz later said, it might have made all the difference.
That story inspired three Rutgers students and one recent alumna to create Nur Bikes, a for-profit bicycle-sharing program focused on the greater good. Think of it as Citi Bike for cash-strapped refugees, rather than time-crunched New Yorkers.
Judges unanimously crowned Nur Bikes the winner of the Hult Prize at Rutgers on Friday, earning the business a $1,000 check from Johnson & Johnson. The on-campus Hult contest is part of an international competition designed to spur innovation and social responsibility among student entrepreneurs. This year’s theme is solving the migrant crisis, which has seen millions of people from Muslim-majority countries disperse across the globe in recent years.
“We see the issue of the refugee crisis every single day, whether it’s in our communities or on the news, and we feel that connection,” Gia Farooqi, a Muslim-American co-founder of Nur Bikes and a senior in the business school, told TapInto New Brunswick. “We want to try to fix as many issues as possible.”
More precisely, the budding company wants to fix three major problems facing refugee camps: employment, electricity and transportation. Farooqi and her partners claim their bike-sharing program can overcome those obstacles by creating delivery jobs, using solar panels to generate light and offering cheap rentals.
The business model works like this: People pick up bikes from a Nur Station, pay a $30 deposit, hit the road and tackle their chores, pay 25 cents per hour and then trade the bike for their deposit. The bikes would help them avoid walking long distances beneath the searing desert sun or using what Farooqi called “expensive, inefficient” bus services.
Bike riders will presumably go shopping or even pick up and deliver far-away products during trips, boosting each camp’s economy, Farooqi said. Nur Bikes also aims to strike partnerships with local vendors and aid groups to create a sort of makeshift courier service, she added.
In the short term, Nur Bikes’ riders get an income. In the long term, they’d be working toward actually owning their bicycles, an asset that’s considered a “luxury” among transitory refugees, Farooqi said.
“We want to give them their own independence,” she said.
Plus, each Nur Station would come with solar-powered LED lights, making the bases illuminated hangouts. That’s important because crime is rampant in most refugee camps, in part because they offer little light come nightfall, Farooqi said.
“It’s really unsafe to even walk around the camp once it gets dark,” she said, “especially for women and children, who can’t even go to the restroom without fearing violence.”
The company plans to launch a pilot program in Zaatari Camp, the same place where Ezz lost his newborn son. Nur Bikes likes this location partially due to the money that flows through its 2,500 businesses: $114 million total and $148 per family, per month, by the startup’s calculations.
Farooqi and her teammates want to place four Nur Stations and one central repair shop near key commuter destinations in Zaatari, which sits just near Jordan’s border with Syria. Projections suggest the company will generate thousands of bike trips per day and $115,000 in profits in the first year, following a $65,000 investment.
So the money Nur Bikes won last weekend will go toward pushing their name out there, developing a website, crowdfunding cash and securing seed money to turn their ideas into actions, Farooqi said.
If the team can get its business off the ground quickly, that will be of great help come the springtime regional finals of the Hult Prize, when Nur Bikes will compete against other undergrads and also graduate and doctorate students from the Northeast’s top schools. Umair Masood, director of the Hult Prize at Rutgers, said many contestants already operate profitable businesses—and that’s what the judges like to see.
“It’s all about what Nur Bikes can do in the next couple months,” Masood added. “Their business model is really outside-the-box thinking, and that’s their lucrative advantage.”
In addition to Farooqi, Nur Bikes is headed by Hanaa Lakhani, Moneeb Mian and Hasan Usmani, who all studied supply-chain management at Rutgers.
Win or lose the grand Hult Prize of $1 million, the company intends to make the pilot program a reality, Farooqi said.