Student-led nonprofit provides shelter to refugees and people experiencing homelessness

A picture of Lauren Yen pointing to a packet of paper, with the page showing two images of tents and 'The Torch' and 'Torch Kit' shown with the largest lettering. Yen wears a blue parka, with the people surrounding her wearing clothes for warm weather. Various tents are in the background.
Torch Global Inc., created by five USC students, came together after applying to be part of an innovative Viterbi course. Through the class, they took research trips to Mória Refugee Camp and thought of their innovation for creating Aluminet tiles to help regulate temperature and humidity in tents. (Photo courtesy of Torch Global Inc.)

Grouped together by an innovative Viterbi course, five students started Torch Global, Inc., a non-profit that provides refugees and people experiencing homelessness more viable shelter conditions. 

Over the course of the 2019-20 school year, they engineered Torch Tiles: pieces of Aluminet that regulate temperature in order to make tent habitats breathable and resistant to environmental conditions. The innovation of its founders Ayeshna Desai, Gianna Morena, Laura Roed, Lauren Yen and Jacob Totaro won the Iovine and Young Academy Social Impact Prize of $10,000 this past summer.

The five seniors were placed in a group after applying to be in the course “Innovation in Engineering and Design for Global Crisis,” previously called “Innovation in Engineering and Design for Global Challenges,” at the Viterbi School for Engineering. The course is intended to teach students innovation in the midst of a crisis, with last year’s class focusing on helping refugees. The instructors, Burcin Becerik-Gerber, David Jason Gerber, School of Cinematic Arts alumnus Daniel Druhora and Viterbi alumnus Brad Cracchiola, contribute a range of backgrounds and skill sets to create an interdisciplinary curriculum open to all majors.

“Our mission with the course is to raise a new generation of changemakers who know how to effectively use engineering, design, research and storytelling to innovate in times of crisis and bring solutions that affect people’s lives,” Druhora said. “The motto of the course is ‘lives, not grades.’”

The course spans the entire school year, and the class took two research trips to Mória Refugee Camp, the largest refugee camp in Europe, on the island of Lesbos in Greece. The purpose of the first trip in the fall was to analyze the needs of refugees and then return in the spring to test their product and collect feedback. 

On their fall trip, the founders said they realized the overwhelming need for resources to keep refugees warm during the winter and cool during the hotter months. People experiencing homelessness might rely on tents as their homes for months, if not years at a time, until they are able to find a permanent home. Torch’s goal was to find a low-cost, effective way to improve their living conditions.

Co-founder and now CEO Jacob Totaro, a senior majoring in environmental engineering and engineering management, emphasized the importance of their trip for assessing the immediate needs of refugees and collecting firsthand data. After returning from Greece, the team identified that they wanted to tackle the problem of warmth in tents.

“We wanted to come up with a cheap and effective way to improve living conditions for a lot of people at a relatively low cost, so we thought about the idea of warming the tent as a home, and that’s kind of what our first prototype came out of,” Totaro said.

The team initially tried taping together pieces of mylar emergency blankets as their first prototype. They then slept inside and recorded measurements but realized that the material trapped too much heat. After researching many materials, they ultimately settled on Aluminet, a shade cloth which is used for industrial scale greenhouses. 

“When you think about a greenhouse, the goal is to keep what’s inside warm in the winter time, but also in the summertime that shades it from getting too hot and getting too much exposure from the sun,” Totaro said. “We took that idea and applied it to people living in tents and makeshift structures as a really affordable way to take this material that’s being used in like, hundred square-foot yards at a time to just break it down, cut it up and basically give people these little tent covers that would regulate temperature.”

The Aluminet material is an aluminum-coated mesh that works to reflect body heat when placed inside the tent but also allows for breathability to eliminate the formation of condensation and keep the tent dry inside. Through their testing, the team found that placing the Tile inside the tent increases the temperature by 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit, close to the temperature that most people set their thermostat to in colder months. 

“They felt that it really made a difference and it was a matter of them being able to sleep with like one less blanket at night because it kept them really warm,” said Morena, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and co-founder of Torch. “And now we’ve realized it can also help in the summer, like dispersing it here like on Skid Row to help with the L.A. heat wave.”  

On their second trip to Mória, they tested the product with five different refugee families, who all said that it worked to increase temperature in the winter and helped significantly with humidity. Normally waking up to pools of sweat on the floor, Torch’s knitted blanket made of reflective material allowed the moisture to escape from the tent.

Co-founder Laura Roed, a senior in IYA, said that the team saw the same need among refugees they met in Greece and in people experiencing homelessness in L.A..

“Instead of starting in the refugee camps, we decided to actually start in Skid Row because we realized there were a ton of parallels between refugee camps and the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles,” Roed said. “By starting here, we would actually be able to talk to people ourselves and get feedback from people.”

Coming out of the class with the product developed, the group started their nonprofit and applied for 501(c)(3) status. Using the prize money from the IYA competition and money raised from GoFundMe fundraisers, they ordered and distributed 500 Tiles in the summer to communities experiencing homelessness in Downtown L.A. with the help of partner organizations such as The People Concern and Water Drop LA. 

Avery Dukes, volunteer coordinator for Water Drop LA, works closely with the Torch team. Water Drop LA, another organization started by USC students, makes weekly water drops on Skid Row and has also distributed Torch Tiles to people experiencing homelessness.

“[One man on Skid Row] stepped inside and was like, ‘There’s a huge difference already.’ He said usually he’ll step in his tent and hit a wall of heat, and that just didn’t happen that time,” Dukes said. “Driving around on Skid [Row] we’ll see a whole streak where almost everyone has a Tile or one person with a big tent will have two or three to cover the whole thing. We’ve had people rush over to ask us if we have a Tile so they can be the first one to have dibs.”

Sarah Higgins is a Program Director for E6 Outreach at The People Concern, which is an L.A.-based service provider for people experiencing homelessness. Torch partnered with The People Concern to determine the effectiveness of the product for people experiencing homelessness in L.A. They distributed 50 Tiles and collected feedback through surveys.

“It was weird timing because we got the [Tiles] right around the time that there was this real COVID surge in our population, and that there was the heat wave that was happening so clients were having a really hard time self-isolating,” Higgins said. “Our response from the clients was that, you know, nothing is perfect, but that [the Tiles] definitely made it much more comfortable and easier to breathe inside of their tent.”

The team just finished another fundraising campaign, raising about $13,000 and placed another order for 1500 Tiles. They plan to allocate several hundred to refugee communities in Mexico and homeless outreach organizations in San Francisco, and distribute the remaining 1000 across L.A. 

Depending on the size of the Tiles and the order placed, each tile ranges from roughly $10-12 in cost. Torch is able to keep the cost low by using a manufacturer in China, and either distributes the Tiles themselves or acts as a middleman between the manufacturer and aid providers who are already distributing. Long-term, Totaro said they plan to make their system scalable and easy to maintain by primarily placing orders for distributors. 

Two interns, Ethan Cruz and Michael Nazari, have joined the team this fall. Cruz, a UCLA senior studying history and business entrepreneurship, works closely with Roed as a business development intern to help Torch grow as a nonprofit organization and develop a business model. Nazari, a USC junior majoring in civil engineering with an environmental emphasis, was brought on as product development intern to improve the Tile product.

“The current plan is to progress and grow our brand as a nonprofit org right now, and try to garner as much of a reputation that way and in that market,” Cruz said. “But as we grow as a company, we want to also have different channels of revenue to grasp on and help our nonprofit side.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the former name of the course “Innovation in Engineering and Design for Global Crisis” that was titled “Innovation in Engineering and Design for Global Challenges.” The Daily Trojan regrets this error.