In the southern foothills of the Himalayas, there's a species of deciduous trees called the Moringa oleifera, a plant whose seeds can be used in water filtration. This fact, trivial to anyone else, is the reason Penn seniors Adrian Lievano and Matthew Lisle won a $200,000 grant through the 2015 President's Engagement prize.
“It seemed like such a shot in the dark,” said Lisle, a who graduated in 2015 with a degree in mechanical engineering. “It’s a 1000-word application, for $200,000 dollars. That’s $200 a word, so we thought there was no way.”
Lievano and Lisle’s winning proposal was to bring plant-based, sustainable water filtration to the people of Kenya. Now, the duo is preparing for the global launch of their own line of household filters through Everwaters, a socially-oriented business they founded together.
The company is currently based out of Puerto Rico, where they are involved in a five-month program with a start-up accelerator called Parallel 18. In addition to providing funding and mentorship, the program has enabled the two Penn alumni to gain access to experts in the field of water filtration, including a researcher whose lab has done work for NASA.
“He purifies urine for astronauts,” said Lievano, who graduated in 2015 with bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering. “He’s the water guy.”
Lievano said none of the progress the company has made so far would have been possible without the funding and mentorship provided from the President’s Engagement Prize.
“It essentially catapulted us into running a business,” he said. “You’re thrown into the fire, right, and it’s up to you to figure it out.”
According to the World Health Organization, 633 million people worldwide (roughly 9 percent of the global population) lack access to improved water sources. Today, Lievano and Lisle's goal is for Everwaters to be able to supply clean drinking water to one million people within five years.
Lievano and Lisle first used their prize money in part to a fund a two-month trip to Kenya in the fall of 2015, studying water use in the rural town of Loitokitok. When they returned, the water crisis in Flint, Mich. was just becoming national news.
“How is it that in the world’s richest and most powerful country, we still struggle with something as simple as clean water?” asked Lievano. “It’s because of our infrastructure.”
It was at this point that the pair decided their water solution would have to be a device which could be implemented in any part of the world, from the U.S. to East Africa. Their solution: a point-of-use filter they’re calling CoWa. Other brands like Brita have already established a strong presence in the market for household filters, but according to Lisle, Everwaters’ design is more effective at removing lead and other contaminants.
“Lead is not just a localized problem in Flint,” Lisle said. “Every state has had a failed lead test over the last three years.”
In preparation for their filter’s upcoming launch, they are promoting their company and looking for additional funding. On Nov. 10, they will be appearing on CNBC show "Make Me A Millionaire Inventor," where contestants receive guidance before a pitch to potential investors. They are also launching a Kickstarter campaign which will run from Nov. 9 to Dec. 24 with a goal of raising $25,000.
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