These days, technical skills alone do not an engineer make. Over the last decade, engineering schools across Canada have focused increasingly on subjects like technological entrepreneurship: the ability to translate industrial innovations into marketable products. Another trend is that of global engineering: the application of know-how from developed nations to problems encountered in the developing world. Bradley Pierik might just be the living embodiment of both of these trends. Two years ago, he was balancing his graduate work in chemical engineering at the University of British Columbia with international development work in Uganda, Kenya and Haiti. Today, at the age of 27, he’s the head of his own company, Twothirds Water Inc., which aims to sell affordable water treatment technologies in developing countries. ACCN spoke to Pierik to find out how engineering and entrepreneurship can take on a global dimension.
How did you get interested in international development?
Halfway through my undergraduate degree in engineering, I spent four months working for the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, an organization that was drilling wells and doing various water projects. I absolutely fell in love with the field, and decided that this was the sort of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I began to gather the skills and experience I needed to make a lasting contribution.
After I graduated, I worked for Trojan Technologies, an Ontario-based company that is a world leader in ultraviolet (UV) disinfection for water and wastewater treatment. Around the same time, I met Bob Dell, who cofounded a charity called Water School. I worked for him in Uganda and Kenya, teaching people how to use the UV radiation in sunlight to kill germs in drinking water. Bob and I became friends and stayed in touch even after I went to do graduate work in chemical engineering at the University of British Columbia, and he still advises me today.
Why do you favour a business approach to international development?
It’s often said that ‘Money is a very blunt instrument with which to do surgery.’ International development is very complex work, and throwing money at a problem often does more harm than good. A common story is that a charity will raise money to give away products — for example, water filters or seed for farmers — and then leave, feeling that their work is done. But what if there’s a local company that’s already trying to meet that need? When a charity gives away that product for free, local producers will often go out of business. On top of that, many products require maintenance. If the charity doesn’t stay and build the capacity of the local community to look after the new products, eventually it will break down and everybody’s back to where they started, except that now even the local people who had the expertise are gone, because they went out of business.
Another issue is that charities have one branch that raises money, and another branch that spends it. Often, they’re not really linked except that money flows between them. In business, the work itself brings in money, so you’re not limited by your ability to fundraise. Certainly there is also some fantastic work being done by charities, but I think we need to consider other models to cover the broad range of challenges that we encounter.
Where does the engineering come in?
Half of the world’s hospitalizations come from easily-avoidable waterborne diseases. Here in the developed world, we have lots of options for water treatment, but these aren’t available to families in developing countries. During my master’s program, I began building water filters on my own, putting them together the way that I thought they should work. Whenever I was travelling for my charity work, I would use my down time to collect feedback from everyone I could talk to, learning about how to improve the product. My goal was to make a product with minimal moving parts that would be intuitive for anybody to use with just pictorial instructions, eliminating the need for training or translation. The device is called Tapp.
How does it work?
Hollow fibre microfiltration is a well-established technology originally developed for kidney dialysis, but it’s used for municipal water treatment as well. It consists of long, thin tubes made of a porous polymer membrane. Water goes in one end of the tube, and goes out through the walls; or you can run it in reverse. Tapp focuses on what we call point of use (POU) applications, meaning household level water treatment. We take those same types of fibres and bundle them into a smaller package.
Our membranes have pores that are 0.2 micrometres across; small enough to remove 99.9 per cent of sediments, particles and bacteria, which are by far the dominant problems for drinking water in developing countries. We’ve designed our filter to mate with standard pop bottle threads as well as quarter-inch tubing and even the tough plastic water bags that are starting to become popular. The nice thing about bags is that you can squeeze them to generate more pressure, which our experiments show is actually the quickest way to pass water through the filter. But you can also use it with gravity flow, or even drink through it like a straw.
The filter can be rotated to three positions. In the first position, the exit valve is open and in the second it’s closed. If you rotate to the third position, you can pump it up and down in a similar motion to a bicycle pump, drawing water into the filter and sending it back out the way it came. This flushes away any sediments that are trapped in the membrane.
This sounds familiar; aren’t there already similar products available for camping and hiking?
Yes. Many of these products are targeted at the North American market, but there are some that are designed for developing countries, just like Tapp is. However, we feel that the simplicity and versatility of Tapp, and the fact that it doesn’t require training, make it a very compelling product relative to what’s currently available. For example: one currently available product consists of a small bucket that mounts on the wall, with a pre-filter that has to be cleaned regularly, as well as a hose and a second filter at the bottom with several valves that are colour-coded based on which one you can drink from and which one you can’t. Learning to use and maintain a system like this is a fairly complicated process.
What about devices that have no moving parts and resemble drinking straws?
An aspect of those products that we have seen resistance to in the field is the fact that they can only be used by one person. Sharing that among several people would actually create a disease vector. Our device treats water and releases it into a receiving container, whether it’s a bucket or a bottle or whatever is available. That way, you can have water for the whole family.
How did you form your company?
During my master’s degree at UBC, I took a course called Technology Entrepreneurship, which was run jointly by the faculties of engineering and business. Two engineering graduate students and two MBA students create a business plan and pitch it — Dragon’s Den style — to a panel of local entrepreneurs and investors. My group focused on the filtration project, and at the end of the course, I decided to actually form the company.
We won an award from the UBC university-industry liaison office, which gave us access to $5,000 of their services. I focused those resources on drafting the patent, which greatly decreased how much I had to spend on patent lawyers. In 2011, I created Twothirds Water Inc. The name reflects the fact that both our bodies and the surface of earth are roughly two-thirds water, and it emphasizes what we all have in common.
How is all this funded?
We raised approximately $60,000 from angel investors, including people like my mentor Bob Dell. By last fall we were ready to get our story out there, so we launched a campaign on the crowd funding website Indiegogo. We sold pre-orders for Tapp on a buy-one, donate-one basis: for each pre-ordered filter sold, we agreed to donate one to a family in a developing country.
So you’re selling these to the North American market as well?
Yes. Because our product is so simple and versatile, it can be applicable in a very wide range of markets: campers and hikers, emergency preparedness kits, disaster relief and maybe even the military.
In the developing world, we anticipate that the retail price will be in the range of $20 to $30. Currently, the most common method of treating drinking water in the developing world at the household level is to do it by boiling the water, which is actually very expensive. As a rule of thumb, it takes one kilogram of fuel to boil one kilogram of drinking water, and this fuel makes up about five per cent of a family’s income. Based on those numbers, Tapp can pay for itself in about six to 12 weeks, so it actually represents a significant cost savings to the family for the rest of that year.
What’s next for Twothirds Water?
We’re a number of months away from being able to mass produce our first order, which will consist of several thousand units. A big part of my process between now and then will be deciding who to partner with for distribution, which in turn will inform the decision of where to launch. We want a partner who is really enthusiastic and driven to make our product successful in their market, one who can get the product through customs in their country, put together and execute a marketing strategy, and who already has a distribution network in place to handle the sales process. The plan is to work really hard for a couple of years, and generate one solid success story, then grow outward from there.
What have been the big lessons from this project?
One of the things I’ve learned in international development work is that it’s very important to realize where you can add value, and where you can’t, and to not overstep that line. When we start telling people what to do when we actually aren’t the best informed, that’s when things can go really badly really fast. A friend of mine uses the phrase trust-risking; to not think that we inherently have all the answers and know how to do everything.
Do you think you’re part of a trend?
I think there’s a general shift toward people wanting to do their work in a way that has a positive impact in the world. My mentor Bob Dell says that decades ago, the mentality might have been to go out and get the biggest paying job; now young people finishing school have a greater interest in how we can use what we’ve learned in a way that makes peoples’ lives better. I think that’s a really encouraging trend, because we all know the scale of the problems that we face.