This brief interview is part of Sustainable Innovation for the World, a series produced by Thomson Reuters Sustainability on new innovation, either scientific or social, which could help make the world more sustainable. This piece is produced in collaboration with Cleantech Open, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to find, fund and foster entrepreneurs with big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges around the world.
Featured Innovation & National Cleantech Open Sustainability Winner 2014: Drinkwell Systems by Minhaj Chowdhury, CEO & Co-Founder of Drinkwell
What is your Product/Innovation/Service Called?
Drinkwell Systems provides clean water solutions to regions affected by large scale arsenic and fluoride contamination in India and Bangladesh.
How does your innovation/product/service help the world?
200 million people across India and Bangladesh suffer from poisoning due to unsafe drinking water. Drinkwell blends patented filtration technology that is 40% cheaper and that produces 60% more water with a micro-franchise business model that co-opts existing distribution channels. Each system creates 3 jobs, can serve an average of 600 households, and reduces adverse health outcomes. The technology has been deployed 200 times across 5 countries – providing more than 250,000 people safe water to-date.
Why did you do it?
Despite being born in the US, my parents are from Bangladesh, a country that is home to what the World Health Organization calls “the largest mass poisoning in human history.” Since the 1970s, 10 million tubewells had been drilled across the country into aquifers that had naturally-occurring arsenic. Nearly 23 million people are at risk of arsenic poisoning today as 1 in 5 deaths in Bangladesh occur due to the crisis. I met the Drinkwell Co-Founder Dr. Arup SenGupta, a Professor at Lehigh University who is originally from West Bengal, on a Fulbright Fellowship. Dr. SenGupta had a refreshing approach to solving the crisis that was truly locally-based. We both agreed to work together and apply for a few grants to see if we could build a business around technology he developed in his university lab. We eventually won a number of grants and business plan competitions which gave me the validation I needed to test the franchise business model. We’ve been off to the races ever since.
I’m lucky to be able to build a company marrying my passion in public health with my inherent skills in understanding, speaking, and living within the Bangla culture due to my upbringing and family lineage. I was always skeptical of solutions that were peddled by outsiders who had no meaningful connection to the at-risk community. Drinkwell was an interesting opportunity because most of the team members were of Indian descent who had a real, tangible connection to the local community. When thinking about the existing technological footprint of the technology, and the challenge of how to scale the system to millions of users the decision to pursue this full-time was easy. We’re now working towards serving 5 million people in the next 5 years, and I couldn’t find a better way to finish out my 20s than building Drinkwell and working at the frontlines of social entrepreneurship and trying to leverage market-based approaches to eradicate the largest mass poisoning in human history.
We are expanding into Bangladesh by launching 10 systems over the next 12 months. Bangladesh is the fifth country where Drinkwell’s technology has been used (India, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal are the others). We are also expanding the product line to include not only arsenic and iron removal but also fluoride, selenium, nitrate, manganese, hardness, and others. Finally, we are rolling out a financial solution that covers end-to-end payments, auditing, and services that enable Drinkwell to track every dime dispensed AND ensure each well is providing safe water years after its installation for quality assurance.
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