According to the World Health Organization, over 200 million people around the world are affected by arsenic-contaminated aquifers. Elevated levels of arsenic have been found in over 70 countries in deeper levels of groundwater, particularly in the tubewells in the Ganges Delta. Among the worst affected is Bangladesh, where over 77 million people are at risk each day, and the country as witnessed an increase in the incidence of cancers of the lungs, skin, and bladder.
In 2013, three Fulbright scholars decided that something needed to be done. Dr. Arup SenGupta – a Kolkata-born Professor at Lehigh University; Minhaj Chowdhury – a Bangladeshi-American with a degree in Public Health at Johns Hopkins; and Dr. Mike German – an American scientist who studied under Dr. SenGupta founded Drinkwell Systems, a water technology company, to help eradicate arsenic and fluoride water contamination.
Cleaner water for all
Drinkwell blends innovative nanotechnology with turnkey water solutions to deliver efficient, cost-effective, and safe water to the masses. The organisation is primarily focusing on the arsenic, fluoride, and iron-affected belts in Eastern India (West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa) as the founders believe the area is underserved and has a high need. “We work with local entrepreneurs, governments, and NGOs who have the social capital and relationships and empower them with technology and business tools to help them provide safe water in their communities,” says Minhaj Chowdhury, Co-Founder.
Drinkwell uses a hybrid anion exchanger that only removes the arsenic or fluoride. Reverse osmosis on the other hand removes all minerals in the water. This requires the good minerals to be reinjected into the water, which is an unnecessary additional step. There is also a lot of water wasted in the reverse osmosis process.
Drinkwell’s technology, on the other hand, wastes only one percent of water, and the resin can be reused five times.
Technology for the masses
The reusable, recyclable water-filtration technology runs on a resin-based regenerable adsorbent to sustainably deliver safe drinking water. The technology saves more water than current solutions that use reverse osmosis technology. “We believe there are many reasons for why such systems eventually become defunct, but chief of them is the use of inappropriate, difficult to operate technology such as reverse osmosis, which requires skilled labour, which is difficult to find in remote arsenic/fluoride-affected regions. Where we believe we stand out is how our resin-based system is quite simple to operate.,” he says.
In Nalhati, West Bengal where fluoride levels are 16 – 18 mg/L, a near 10x increase from the safe limit of 1.5 mg/L, a caretaker with no proper schooling, has successfully operated the system for over nearly two years. “The system provides safe water to an Adivasi school, where the children would otherwise have had to consume fluoride-contaminated water, which can result in ingrown arm and leg joints that can impair mobility. It also impacts their nutrition and stunts growth, causing irreparable harm to their potential,” says Minhaj.
One of their main customers is Nagpur-based Ritewater Solutions Pvt. Ltd. “They have secured contracts for 902,000 litres per hour community systems for fluoride removal in Bihar, 40 1,000 – 2,000 litres per hour community systems in Maharashtra, and nine large-scale piped water systems ranging from 50 to 190,000 litre per hour systems in West Bengal through our technology,” says Minhaj.
“The response has been fantastic as the West Bengal and Bihar Public Health Engineering Departments are scaling us up through the use of nanotechnology, which we believe is a step in the right direction over Reverse Osmosis, a highly wasteful and energy-intensive solution that will only accelerate India’s water scarcity crisis.”
The business of drinking well
Drinkwell has two business lines – licensing technology to Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) firms which they monetize by collecting royalties from EPC firms who bid on government tenders for arsenic and fluoride water treatment systems issued by State-level Public Health Engineering Departments. Their second line is in providing turnkey system sales, operation, and maintenance services to local organisations where the capital costs are financed by CSR, Foundations, and bilateral government programmes but ongoing servicing is paid from end users fees generated by the sale of water at between Rs 5 – 10 for every 20 litres.
Minhaj says it is important to acknowledge how the government is actively prioritising the eradication of the arsenic and fluoride water crisis and plans to impact over 23 million people across 28,000 villages pan-India by March 2021 by allocating Rs 25,000 crore. Further, the “Har Ghar Jal” initiative of ensuring all Indians have piped water by 2030 is being prioritised through the allocation of Rs 23,000 crore until the target is reached. “This is now attracting EPC firms and organisations to prioritise this market segment but the challenge lies in ensuring sustainability, as many government projects show promise only to result in defunct systems,” he adds.
From a product perspective, Drinkwell’s initial challenges involved establishing a local supply chain in Kolkata, skilling manufacturing staff, and developing a streamlined process around procurement, manufacturing, bagging, and resin delivery to customers. “Mike was living in Kolkata in 2014, when we started this process and thanks to funding from the US-India Science & Technology Endowment Fund, we were able to hire our CTO Dr. Prasun Chatterjee – a PhD student of Dr SenGupta at Lehigh – who helped us stabilise the work,” says Minhaj.
“Prasun (Chatterjee) built not only our technical team and manufacturing process, but also our HR, finance, and operating procedures. We were also lucky in how we had another Prasun (Sengupta), who helped with setting up our offices, procurement, and compliance. Now that we have stabilized the process we are thinking through how to scale up our manufacturing by mechanising our process.”
The road ahead
Today, Drinkwell is a 38-member team focused on reaching 5 million people by 2020, and believe they can get there by first building a market leadership position in Eastern India, and then expanding to the Western India. “We have found that in Western India in states such as Karnataka people still think that RO is the only solution due to aggressive marketing from RO technology providers who use Bollywood stars and spend crores on promoting their technology without mentioning how much waste such a solution creates, says Minhaj.
“We think that once we scale our solution in Eastern India where the West Bengal and Bihar governments are already embracing alternative technologies, we can use that traction to attract champions who can then help us change mindsets in Western India as well. In parallel, we will continue to grow our footprint in Bangladesh where we focus on the arsenic and iron contamination issue and also explore opportunities to enter the Chinese market which has a litany of water quality issues including fluoride, as well as the African market in 2019 particularly in Kenya, where the rift valley has a particular issue with regard to high fluoride,” he says.
Drinkwell and the Dell Startup Challenge
Drinkwell’s solution to bring clean drinking water via technology has earned it a place as the winner the Dell Startup Challenge Season 2. The Startup Challenge is a platform from Dell in association with YourStory for startups to present their business idea to a jury for a chance to win Dell Vostro laptops and Dell technology worth $5,000. Dell is committed to accelerating the increasingly powerful role that entrepreneurs play in driving global economic growth, and wants to empower entrepreneurs by providing them with the tools, technology and resources they need.
“I learnt about this challenge through the YourStory site and applied. I am so honoured to be considered one of the finalists as I always read about the amazing work being done across multiple sectors in India and to emerge as the winner of the challenge is a true honour for us. He says that building a reliable technology infrastructure is critical to ensuring that they maintain quality and be responsive to customers as the team and footprint grows.
“Winning this challenge will be quite catalytic on this front as having support from a company as renowned as Dell couldn’t be more appropriate from a timing perspective as we have many follow-on orders that will more than double our impact next year.”