Pa. product purifies water for a thirsty world
Each day, women and children in third world nations set out from their villages in search of life’s most precious commodity: water.
But their journeys are by no means easy.
They must endure long and grueling walks along treacherous paths that are known as “rape trails.” When they do return home, the water they’ve gathered is usually contaminated with animal feces, arsenic or other toxins that lead to a whole host of health problems.
Stephen Strachan, Marcus Ward and Robert Llewellyn, Managing Partners of York-based International Water Company, are working to shift that paradigm. Their Mobile Water Purification System (MWPS) is designed to provide clean water for drinking and agricultural purposes.
“Our product has been attracting attention internationally from humanitarian organizations, NGOs (non-government organizations), the military, both domestic and international, and the U.S. government,” said Strachan, who is also CEO. “A lot of people are doing water purification, but very few are using solar and wind renewable energy sources together.”
Founded in 2010, the fledgling company has been the recipient of two Market Access Grants (MAGs), which have aided in international marketing.
The Pennsylvania MAG Program is a collaborative effort between Team Pennsylvania Foundation and DCED’s Office of International Business Development to encourage innovative use of funds to meet the specific international marketing needs of small and mid-sized Pennsylvania companies to enhance their capability to increase export sales. Last year alone, the program supported 48 companies and resulted in over $39 million in export sales.
So far, one of the grants assisted IWC’s venture in China, where its larger unit is purifying 19 gallons of water per minute at a bottling facility located at the highly visible Bird’s Nest in Beijing, a sports stadium that was prominently featured in the 2008 Summer Olympics. (A smaller version purifies about 2.5 gallons of water per minute.)
“Being a young company, there are constant funding issues. Being a young company just on the upswing of our exports, funding is important – especially after 3.5 years of R & D (research and development) and burning through millions of dollars,” Strachan said. “We’ve seen ROI (return on investment) on the China grant and are still waiting to see what happens in Mexico. You have to understand that it took us three years to get into China.”
Ward said their product is unique because it operates on solar, wind, gravity feed, generator or AC line power and is easy to set up and maintain.
“Our model is the reverse model of everyone else,” Ward said. “We don’t live for the continuing revenue stream of disposable, replaceable filter cartridges. To have sustainability in these frontier areas is key. It also helps reduce maintenance costs over the life cycle of the machine, and that is important too because these countries don’t have a Lowe’s or Home Depot right up the street to run to.”
The company recently celebrated its grand opening earlier this month when it hosted a Liberian trade delegation, led by Monrovia Mayor Clara Doe Mvogo. That visit led to a pending order for two units.
“We told her the size, the capabilities and the price,” Ward recalled, “and she said, ‘Oh my goodness, that costs less than my SUV.’ These machines on a six-year amortization will make water .005 cents a gallon.”
“The WHO (World Health Organization) calls for a minimum of one gallon per day per person,” Strachan added. “That basically values a human life at five one thousandth of a cent per day – if you want to make that linear connection. When presented with numbers like that, it is impossible for anyone to justify saying no.”
As IWC looks to the future and expanding its products both internationally and domestically beyond its current revenue of $1 million, the company wants to research treatment processes that address water-borne illnesses and water used in hydraulic fracking.
“We are branching out into disease control, which wasn’t our original intent,” Strachan said. “There are no cures for certain water-borne illnesses, so that is why we’re placing a couple of machines in the Middle East and North Africa.”
As far as technology for treating water used in hydraulic fracking is concerned, more research must be done, according to Strachan.
“We did an experiment of a frack water remediation unit in south Texas, but the problems we had were we had no idea what was in the frack fluid and we had no idea what standard we had to achieve to be able to reuse the water,” Strachan said. “We took it down there and had three hours of incredible success. The water may not have been drinkable, but it was clean enough to be reused (in fracking).”
For now, however, IWC is content in placing its product into markets to quench the thirst of a parched populace as well as conserve time for more constructive endeavors.
“Ben Franklin Technology Partners did a study that I still haven’t totally grasped yet: 200 million hours a day go into women gathering water,” Ward said. “If you take that 200 million hours and incorporate that into something positive like construction, you could build the equivalent of 28 Empire State buildings daily. I still can’t get my head around that fact.”