Saturday, August 18, 2018
Business

For guys with cool portable housing concept, time is ticking

Ybor City architect Sean Verdecia has designed a portable home as easy to assemble as some Ikea furniture.

Verdecia and business partner Jason Ross recently launched a startup making the collapsible, modular dwellings. The two were inspired to create these units after witnessing the devastation in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina while they were still students at the University of South Florida School of Architecture. Verdecia and Ross saw clunky, slow-to-be-delivered FEMA trailers as a poor answer to the immediate needs for disaster housing.

So they designed and built a dwelling now called AbleNook. Units can be delivered flat-packed — efficiently, in bulk, like Ikea furniture — and can be assembled without tools in about two hours. The units are insulated, come prewired for electricity, are expandable, can be reused and sit on legs that adjust to uneven ground.

The basic unit costs around $16,000. Oh yeah, they are pretty cool looking, too.

A prototype sits in an Ybor City warehouse and area manufacturers of the components are lined up, if and when production starts. The basic unit measures just 64 square feet.

The co-founders decided to pitch AbleNook as a creative solution for humanitarian purposes. Based on the volume of emails Verdecia gets, plenty of people simply want to buy a unit for their own use, whether for camping and home expansion or for office space and even a small medical facility.

Funding AbleNook has proved a slow process. Verdecia and Ross inked a deal with USF, which helped them get a $12,000 grant and secured the duo the first patent ever issued at the USF School of Architecture. USF will receive a royalty should AbleNook generate revenues.

Last fall, the microfunding group known as Awesome Tampa Bay granted $1,000 to AbleNook for its creative potential. Rafaela Amador, who now holds the title of "dean of awesomeness" at Awesome Tampa Bay, is tapping a network of similar Awesome groups to seek additional funding.

Those are modest dollars. Recently, Verdecia, 35, and Ross, 25, decided to seek $60,000 by pitching AbleNook on a funding website for creative projects called Kickstarter.

Raising funds this way is called crowdsourcing, a relatively new way to find money by appealing directly to people who can view dozens upon dozens of creative projects and can pledge funds directly to any they like on the website. For example, about 10 percent of the films selected for this year's prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Utah raised money through Kickstarter, NPR reports.

An online gauge shows how much money has been pledged for each project. As of Friday, AbleNook had attracted nearly $16,000 or 26 percent of its $60,000. If that goal is not reached by Feb. 4, AbleNook will not receive any of the pledges. That's how Kickstarter works — Darwinian style.

Verdecia likes Kickstarter because it has the potential to raise money without tapping traditional investors who, in exchange for money, want to own a piece of the new business.

Even if the Kickstarter goal is not met by Feb. 4, the site provides additional publicity to AbleNook, Verdecia says.

Building AbleNook is a labor of love. Verdecia works for Ybor City's Alfonso Architects and spends much of his time working on the redesign of Tampa International Airport's international terminal, Airside F.

Ross recently took a position with the giant Gensler architectural firm in Atlanta but returns often to help the startup. "We are the yin and yang of this business," says Verdecia, who grew up in Tampa's Hyde Park when "it was a neighborhood and not an investment."

Verdecia attended Plant High School and Hillsborough Community College and worked in Ybor City for ice cream business PhillySwirl — a business that also was founded by two young men. Later, better focused on what he wanted to do, Verdecia pursued architecture at USF. That's where he met Ross, a Tallahassee native, and formed the team that envisioned AbleNook.

"The more we can develop this idea and refine how it is made, the more cost-effective a solution it can be for what we want to make," says Ross, who sees additional potential markets in institutional portables and military housing.

Not a bad start for an Ybor startup.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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