Competing to Provide Clean Water
by Sudhir Ahluwalia | VigorBuddy.com |
One would normally expect that in a tech summit there would be technology companies attending. But in the list of Web Summit Lisbon 2016 attendees, I found Rorus Inc a US based company providing clean water solutions. They will stand out from the rest because they are different.
I am based out of India. A water filter is found in nearly every urban home in the country. The subject naturally caught my attention. I reached out to Corinne Clinch Founder of Rorus Inc a Boston, USA based company. Corinne is a biomedical engineering graduate from Carnegie Mellon University. She incorporated Rorus in 2014.
Rorus Inc have designed a nanoparticle technology based water filter. It removes waterborne pathogens (viruses, bacteria and protozoa) bringing them down to World Health Organization (WHO) standards. It clears the turbidity in water, removes bad odor, heavy metals like Arsenic and lead. It makes unfit to drink water potable.
In India and many other developing countries access to clean drinking water is a challenge. This makes it a huge business opportunity as well as a social imperative. There are many parts of the country with no or poor access to electricity. Rorus Inc water filters do not require electricity.
The nanoparticle based filter has a life of one year. Rorus filter’s have an inbuilt security mechanism which stops flow of water from the filter at the end of its life. This startup has opened a sales office in India and is looking to sell in the huge Indian market.
The startup has been bootstrapped and has secured funds from TIE and other institutions. When I spoke to Corinne at the end of September 2016, they were producing a small number of filters locally in the US.
The market for water filters in India is huge. It is a country of 1.25 billion people. There are parts of the country where the water is polluted with Arsenic and other heavy metals. Clean water free of chemical pollutants is a matter of life and death especially in such places. Both citizens and the government are investing a lot of effort and resources to provide potable drinking water to people.
At the individual level, there is a flourishing market for water filters. These range from ceramic, membrane filters, reverse osmosis and other filters. Water filters can be bought even in remote locations in the country.
The market and prices are competitive. Many manufacturers have built elaborate after sales service facilities with personnel visiting homes changing and servicing filters. Rorus has decided to compete in this market. The startup too will need to build a complete manufacture, sales and service ecosystem to compete in this market.
Corinne told me that they are focusing on the North East and the Eastern part of the country. Here, in many parts, ground water is poisoned with Arsenic. Nanoparticle based water filters are effective in these regions. Rorus focusing on a region is good strategy. The market in India varies from State to State and it is best to focus on a region. But they are not alone in this market.
An Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT M) innovation has already got approval of both the Federal and State government of West Bengal. The IIT Madras innovation of 2013 has been commercialized. Rorus Inc too had built the first set of nanoparticle based filters in 2013.
IIT M has begun installing nanoparticle based water filters in Arsenic affected areas of the State of West Bengal. Their filtration units provide clean Arsenic free potable water to population sizes from 100 to 300 people.
Water purification takes place in two stages. In the first stage the microbial impurities are killed by silver nanoparticles. Other chemical impurities like arsenic, lead, iron, pesticides are removed next with the help of a different set of nanoparticles. The innovation is also using other water purification technologies like reverse osmosis membranes, solar and thermal technologies to make the filtration process more effective.
Corinne did not share information on the technology that Rorus filters are using. Probably it will be a combination of the IIT Madras innovation or more. The focus, though, is to make filters that are suited for individual families. The startup has a co Founder who is a specialist in industrial design. Together with the considerable technology back up available within the US, Rorus Inc should be more than a match to the IIT Madras innovation.
IIT M innovation is getting the support of both the state and the Federal government. But government institutions are bureaucratic and less nimble. Politics of providing cheap or free clean water to the poorest is also a factor that would make IIT M clean water filter venture government grant dependent.
On the other hand, Rorus Inc to compete will need to rely on its own balance sheet, innovation and marketing drive. This may appear to be a battle between a Government supported Goliath and a David. I have rarely seen government supported programs survive in the retail free market. My vote, therefore, will go to David.
This will be a venture that I would like to keep a track of. Success will depend on business acumen of the Rorus Inc team. If the venture succeeds in the Eastern India market, the field will be open for them to expand their operations to other parts of the country. It is not demand that will be the limiting factor for this product in India.
Sudhir Ahluwalia is a business consultant. He has been management consulting head of Asia’s largest IT outsourcing company Tata Consultancy Services, business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of upcoming book on herbs-Holy Herbs. He has been a member of the Indian Forest Service. His webpage is: www.sudhirahluwalia.com