Why a marine scientist studying for her doctorate is building a car wash startup instead

Areej Alsheikh (right) with fellow airSponge co-founder Amin Bazzaz

Areej Alsheikh’s idea for an on-demand carwash service won the inaugural Startup Weekend Brisbane women’s hackathon — an event designed to get more women into startups.

Alsheikh is currently a PhD student in bioinformatics, which she describes as a mixture of her marine science masters and computer science degree. She told Business Insider she always has ideas for companies, and her husband was “fed up” and told her to do something with them.

Alsheikh hit on the idea of a carwashing service, which connects “carwashers” and “carwashees”, just a few days before the event. She was toying with the concept of a startup that dispatched stylists to conduct home makeovers. But when she did some research, polling people at the shopping mall, the response was tepid. What they did want was someone to wash their car. Alsheikh says her only rivals in the space are general services companies like Airtasker, or classifieds like Gumtree, and that airSponge’s competitive advantage will be specialisation.

When Alsheikh pitched airSponge for the first time on Saturday, she got enough votes from fellow participants to move the idea forward. Over the next two days, together with her new co-founder, Amin Bazzaz, Alsheikh conducted research, developed a business plan and created a minimum viable product — a landing page to gauge interest.

Alsheikh says that events like the women’s hackathon are valuable because they are less intimidating.

“Having female judges, coaches and mentors helped a lot,” she said. But her key takeaway was validation.

“There are tons of ideas out there, but very few of them can actually become a viable product. Why? Because people simply wouldn’t buy/use it. I learned that an idea needs to be validated before even starting to build a product, which is what we did!” she said.

“I also learned that it’s doable. With organised teamwork, focus, help from mentors/coaches, and knowledge of available tools out there with a pinch of positive attitude can help achieve that. Solutions to problems or obstacles are often easier than one thinks! Focus on the big picture and the ultimate goal of getting “a” product out there as soon as possible, leaving out the details for later.”

Alsheikh and Bazzaz have set up a meeting with a consultancy firm — their prize for winning, and they plan to enroll in an accelerator program and take the business from there. Alsheikh says they will build mobile apps as well as a fully functional website — they currently process all requests manually and between them both should be able to do it themselves.

Until their website is up and running you can follow and learn more about airSponge via Twitter.

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