Impact Engine’s Inaugural Class: Portapure
I founded Portapure in 2010 in response to the earthquake in Haiti. At the time, I was a chemical engineer managing the water purification process for the Chicago Department of Water Management. Watching live coverage, I was astounded to see actress Ashley Judd demonstrate what quake survivors had to do to get their water to be safe enough to drink: add purification tablets to boiling water, boil for twenty minutes, then further strain through a T-shirt into a second pot. I knew there was a better way.
Portapure’s mission is to provide affordable and effective point-of-use water solutions to individuals worldwide. We developed prototypes that were used in 2011 during the tsunami in Japan and the flooding in Thailand. From those field studies, we learned that although the original invention, PocketPure, was effective, it was confusing and bulky for people to use. Today, Portapure has developed a small portfolio of products that prove water can be purified simply and easily at a low cost.
Portapure has already won numerous awards, including: Recognition from Tech Cocktail; Chicago Innovation Awards finalist for the “Up and Comer” Award; and Global Cleantech Cluster: Top 30 Global Cleantech finalist. Portapure is currently one of 10 finalists in the City of Chicago Treasurer’s Office Business Plan Competition.
The problem: access to clean water
Water is a staggering issue. The World Health Organization estimates that 884 million people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. UNICEF and USAID estimate that 88% of the 2 million annual diarrheal deaths are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene. Of those deaths, 1.5 million are children – a rate of 4,000 deaths a day. That’s staggering.
In response, there is a growing field of manufacturers who have developed personal use water purification products. A comparison shows that competitors’ products are either bulky, ineffective, or expensive for countries where living off of $1-2 a day is standard.
For example, take bottle filters. The Katadyn Bottle filter is not intended for use against diarrheal viruses and it costs $50. Portapure’s Pure Bottle eliminate viruses, bacteria and protozoa and costs about $10 while competitor, LifeSaver costs $160. The same holds true with larger containers that hold several gallons of water. The Puralytics SolarBag retails for about $99 but is made of a thin material that will not hold up to the rugged use it will be put to in the field.
What makes Portapure unique?
With single-use products at one end of the spectrum and large water recovery companies like Veolia at the other, Portapure has turned it’s focus to the issue of providing customized personal use solutions, like in-home filtration or well caps. What makes Portpaure unique is its patented technology which is a series of filters with increasingly fine filtration surfaces that can filter to .02 microns, the level needed to remove Cholera, E. Coli, Coliform, Bacteria, Dysentary, Cryptosporidium, and Giardia.
Unlike other manufacturers, Portapure’s screening technology offers incredible flexibility in designing water filtration products. From straws and bottles, to jugs and well filters, the possibilities for clean water products are endless. The biggest challenge facing the company is effective product adoption. We want to make sure improper product use does not lead to users getting sick. For instance, if an individual thinks of a way to bypass our filtration system and consume unfiltered water, that person will get sick. To reduce the potential of this kind of occurrence we’ve designed our products for ease of use, such that complex instructions are not necessary. Additionally, we are partnering with NGOs, manufacturers, schools, and distributors to provide our products to the end user to offer training and/or support to users if necessary.
Our goal is to be in 75 countries within 5 years, with direct sales to consumers through retail outlets. Being part of Impact Engine can catapult us toward our goal. We are excited to be working with them to obtain valuable information on world markets, manufacturing advice, and access to resources that we would not otherwise have had without them. Due to support from Impact Engine, we believe we will be able to identify the best products for each market so that we can have a direct impact on helping those people for whom access to clean water is a daily struggle.
* This article is the third profile within an eight-part series, featuring the eight startup companies from Impact Engine’s inaugural cohort. Impact Engine is a 12-week accelerator program that supports for-profit businesses making the world a better place. *