Student team tackles Africa's water woes
Pursuit of profit isn't the only thing that ignites the entrepreneurial spirit. A business venture by a team of ASU students is one such example.
Six members of the African Students Association at ASU – Lionel Metchop, Vahid Dejwakh, Ronald Gahimbare, Usaju Lemiso, Nnditsheni Madavha and Chris Ndungutse – have created a company to help solve one of the most critical and widespread problems on one of the world's largest continents: water scarcity in Africa.
Watel Solutions Corp. was formed in September, when its members decided to enter the ASU Technology Entrepreneurship Challenge sponsored by Intel Corp.
The group competed with eight other teams of students from ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and the W. P. Carey School of Business. Each went before a panel of judges to present plans for businesses based on emerging technologies developed through research at ASU.
The Watel Solutions proposal, based on modifying existing technology that produces water from humidity in the air, earned the first-place prize: a $20,000 award to help finance the company's startup. The win also sent them off to compete in the international Intel/University of California-Berkeley Entrepreneurship Challenge in October.
Watel Solutions, whose name derives from the words “water” and “electricity,” took on 18 teams from around the world – including participants from China, Singapore, Russia, Brazil and India – that had won similar first-place prizes at their home universities. The group tied for third place with a team from Peking University in China, and both teams won $5,000 to help fund their businesses. The ASU team also was honored with the People's Choice Award, which earned it an additional $5,000.
The ASU students, who are working with engineers at Tempe-based Alter-Air Corp., have developed the Watel40, an atmospheric water generator (AWG) that can produce drinkable water for 13 cents per gallon (based on electricity costs in Douala, Cameroon).
The refrigerator-sized machine transforms humidity into clean drinking water using electrical or solar power. Water is produced when humid air passes through a coil cooled by a refrigerant, which causes the moisture to condensate. The water is then passed into a storage tank, where it is pumped out through a charcoal filter and then an ultraviolet light chamber to kill any harmful bacteria.
The students say their model is twice as energy-efficient as competitors' products, using a single kilowatt of energy to produce up to 40 gallons of water.
Tom Duening, director of the Entrepreneurial Programs Office at the Fulton School of Engineering and organizer of the ASU Entrepreneurial Challenge, believes Watel Solutions can be successful because of the real-world application of the technology.
“A technology competition is usually only about technology, which typically means there has been some incremental advance in some very esoteric technology that most people don't even understand,” Duening says. “This team's proposal was unique because everyone understands the social issue involved. The magnitude of the problem is something that is evident to many people, and the fact that this team came up with a technological solution to this huge problem is what made their business plan stand out.”
Metchop, the general manager of Watel Solutions, recalls the initial reaction at the competition to their product.
“Everyone was telling us that we seemed more like a nonprofit organization than a business,” he says. “Other participants suggested that we try to sell our product to the government.”
But the team wants to pursue its goal strictly through a business model, aiming directly at the consumer market.
“We would like to make our product available to everyone, but that's not possible,” Metchop says. “Working primarily with the government or other aid organizations to make the product available in the region would take years because of the heavy bureaucracy involved. We hope that by initially introducing the Watel40 to customers who can afford it, we can eventually produce the unit at a lower cost – and provide clean, drinkable water to more people.”
The price of the Watel40 would require a residential buyer to have a yearly income of about $30,000. Less than 5 percent of the population in western and eastern Africa earns that amount, so the Watel Solutions team plans to initially market the product in the western port cities of Africa, where incomes generally are higher.
Deanna Evans, firstname.lastname@example.org