In 2016, when each day presents a fresh bombardment of sobering statistics and news of impending climate catastrophes, viable solutions to these colossal issues still seem too few and far between.
Among the many crises bearing down on our collective horizon, perhaps none is so uniquely threatening to populations worldwide as that of water scarcity. Tomorrow morning, more than one billion people will wake up without access to clean water, a number that is only expected to quadruple by 2030.
As climate change, industrial agriculture, and surging populations deplete and contaminate dwindling freshwater sources, all eyes have turned to the oceans, where 97 percent of the world’s water supply resides. Existing methods for water desalination, however, are grossly expensive, highly unsustainable, and unfit for developing countries and non-coastal regions.
Enter Desolenator, a U.K.-based startup co-founded by CEO William Janssen and “Rainmaker” Alexei Levene, which aims to address one billion of those affected by the global water crisis. Desolenator offers the world’s first affordable, compact, and portable device that uses solar technology to purify water.
Unreasonable sat down with William and Alexei to discuss water scarcity, its imminent ramifications, and Desolenator’s potential to empower rural communities to create and profit from clean water.
So tell me about how you two met. How did Desolenator get its legs?
W: I hear the company has legs! That’s good!
A: It’s got a belly at the moment anyway…
W: Well, I invented the technology in 2012, when I built a proof of principle in my living room. Once we tested it and confirmed the potential of the technology, we applied for a patent. I got in touch with a friend of mine who was an entrepreneur, because I’ve worked in project management all my life and thought, ‘What can I possibly do?’ He gave me a list of names and I worked down the whole list and they were all wonderful people but didn’t bring me any further.
Tomorrow morning, more than one billion people will wake up without access to clean water. Tweet This Quote
And so I spoke to my friend a couple of weeks later and he said, ‘Well I have one more friend but he’s in India so it might be a bit far afield, but you know, give it a try.’ And I met Alexei over Skype, and we decided to undertake this project together. I flew to India, we started doing proof of concept prototypes in Southern India, and we took it forward, and this is where we ended up!
A: I very quickly came to have a lot of respect for William and to see him as a friend. I think we complement each other well. There was also an understanding right from the outset that this had the potential to have huge impact and so that was also a very exciting thing. We’ve had quite a lot of fun on this journey.
Let’s talk about that impact a little bit. William, what led you to develop this technology in the first place? What issue are you trying to address?
W: Well, I’m not an inventor. I had been studying solar collectors for a long time because I was so intrigued with their inefficiency, and it took me to Dubai to witness the huge need for desalination that they have there. It was in Dubai that I realized you shouldn’t use a solar collector to warm up water, you should use a solar collector with PV to boil water, because then you can create distilled water. And that thought immediately led to wondering what you could do with that water.
Water scarcity is going to be a huge issue, and it probably will lead to wars. Tweet This Quote
The sad thing is that most of us in the developed world use hundreds of liters of water per day and we just flush it down the toilet. And people who are less fortunate, they carry water to their own home. And the amount of water that we can create with that one device is equal to the amount of water that people carry to their home. So, people in the developed world will complain about our device. They will say it doesn’t create enough water. But the impact that we can create by providing water for people who don’t have it is enormous.
Four billion people by the year 2030 will not have reliable, daily access to healthy water and we set out to address one billion of those people.
Alexei, what’s your relationship to water stress and why are you passionate about impacting this issue?
A: I’ve lived abroad for quite a few years, and I lived six years in India. When you spend time in a place like India — get to know people, see how they live, experience it yourself — you realize that clean water is not something to be taken for granted. If something goes wrong with the pump, you have no water. If the water truck doesn’t come, you have no water. But I really gained a deeper understanding through researching and learning how deep this problem actually is. And water stress a very complex and difficult problem to understand.
If I say a billion people today don’t have access to clean water, it won’t sink in because we can’t even imagine a billion people. We can’t conceptualize the fact that by 2030, half of the world won’t have access to clean water.
If you think about it in a global context, imagine a community that doesn’t have water for a day, or two days — the whole fabric of civilization breaks down. We’re not talking reconciliation. It’s a complete breakdown. And unfortunately we’re in a situation where half the world doesn’t have clean water. This whole idea of an existential threat or conflict happening because of water, it would move from existential to real very quickly. This is a real, present danger, which we’re very much insulated from here in the U.K.
Why is Desolenator an elegant solution compared to other technologies designed to clean water?
W: For one, it is off-grid. It is relatively mobile, it is relatively light, it is easy to ship to difficult places. It has a very long life span and it is affordable.
A: If you look at existing technologies, like reverse osmosis, they’re very complex and clunky. They have elements that require power input, which in many parts of the world is not always viable. In Tamil Nadu, for example, many places have 16-hour power cuts a day. It’s one of the leading states in India. You know, in India 300 million people don’t have power at all on a daily basis. So that’s one consideration. They have to buy filters that need to be changed every four, five, six months.
We’ve got a very simple system — no chemicals, no filters, you don’t need to buy any spare parts. Maintenance simply requires that you give it a clean. After a couple of years you may need to replace the battery, but we made it a modular system, so that you just take it out and put the new one back in.
Can you walk me through how the Desolenator works?
W: Most Americans or Europeans who have PV panels on their roofs are vaguely aware that they convert about 15 percent of the solar energy into electricity, and no one really thinks about what happens to the other 85 percent.
Once you take a PV panel to a tropical location, you very quickly find out what happens to that other 85 percent, because that energy is converted into heat. And if you were to put a solar panel in a place like Dubai, you can actually fry an egg on it, it gets so hot. Now, a secondary effect of solar panels is that the hotter they get, the less productive they become in converting sunlight into electricity.
Desolenator aims to co-harvest the energy of the sun, and we harvest all that heat by cooling a solar panel down with water.
Everybody wins. That’s the premise. Tweet This Quote
Water that boils gives vapor, and the wonderful thing about water vapor is that it’s pure H2O. Apart from a few small exceptions, it will provide us with a distillate. Our device takes the vapor off the broiler vessel and heat exchanges it against the water in the solar collector, so that we can create distilled water and give back some of that energy that is caught in the vapor, creating a closed-circuit device that is compact and functional and provides clean water for people.
What’s your initial market?
A: The first part that we’re building is a product for what we’ll call more broadly the “developed world.” Eco-conscious people love us. Preppers love us. So do people who are interested in knowing what’s in their water, because we’re creating distilled water. They can remineralize it with whatever they want, but they’re not taking tap water that’s got fluoride and chlorine and other additives in it. So that’s our initial market, and it’s a classic retail supply chain.
When we get into the developing world, it’s about working with charities, NGOs, aid agencies, and local distributors, but that’s kind of a formula. We’re quite interested and turned on by this evolution of the model where we can possibly create a coherence between yachts, on the one end, and communities in Somalia on the other end. If someone buys a Desolenator in California, for example, what would it look like if they provided water for someone in Africa?
How do you make that coherent?
A: You connect. And the way that you connect is that you bring people together through story. And if somebody in California is buying this product and part of that purchase funds water for someone else, somewhere else, they’re part of that larger story, and that’s how we join these very different worlds.
I think where it gets very interesting is where we start to look at things like micro-entrepreneurship.
How can the Desolenator be applied to micro-entrepreneurship?
A: So it’s an Internet of Things (IoT) device, which means that we can monitor data from within the system. So we can look at performance, usage, and geographic data to see how much water’s been used, or how much energy has been converted, or we can even know if the customer is pointing it to the sun in the right direction. And of course, payment data. We can have a CRM on the other side where we can know that each customer is paying in a certain way, either by leasing or paying by use.
So an entrepreneur can have a couple of Desolenators and he or she can sell clean water and make a small bit of money on it, gaining income for the family and providing what is clean and low-cost water to the community. Everybody wins. That’s the premise.
What are some of the greatest challenges that you face right now as a company and as a team?
W: The next challenge is basically a technical one, just to do design, engineering, and a little bit of testing and assembly. It’ll just be a challenge that we’ll need to overcome in order to provide the level of rigidity in the device that we require. And then our challenge will be to make sure that we get a production line that can churn out units that we’re going to bring to markets.
A: Yeah, I mean, I guess on a personal level, not having much of a personal life kind of sucks, you know…
W: Yup. One doesn’t get very rich from being an entrepreneur. Yeah, maybe in the future, but it is definitely not something someone does for the money.
Water scarcity is a real, present danger, which we’re very much insulated from. Tweet This Quote
A: When William made the first proof of principle, his wife was pregnant. And his wife’s pregnant now as well, she’s about to give birth. As for me, it’s a different thing, but it can be tough.
W: And I think it is a part of us that we just want to see this through. This is something we set out to do, we have all the tools in our hands and there’s a billion people out there that we can help. You cannot keep on standing still, you have to keep on walking forward.
A: And we see that it resonates with people at all levels. Whether we’re meeting someone who’s on less than $2 a day in South India who’s just like, ‘Please, really, please come here,’ all the way through to top execs at Barclay’s who are touched to the degree that they start taking action, it’s another bridge that we provide through story and through this application.
What would the world look like should Desolenator and similar technologies never actually impact the market?
W: Three letters: war. It will lead to war.
Luckily we can not yet see these problems between nations, but if you look at the situation in Southern India, between the state of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, it’s an obvious example. These states within India are having a fight and national parliament has to intervene. You can also see it between Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California. They’re fighting over the Colorado River. Take as an example the border between Turkey and Syria, in the Middle East — Turkey has been taking the water from the Euphrates and that is causing potential for a war.
A: Look at Ethiopia and Egypt…
W: And Sudan, taking all the water out of the Nile. So water scarcity is going to be a huge issue, and it probably will lead to wars. We are trying our best to do our part to at least give those people who have access to any kind of water current — be it polluted, brackish, saline, arsenic-poisoned, fluoride-poisoned, any water at all — an opportunity to improve their lives.
A world without this kind of technology is a world that is philosophically misaligned. Tweet This Quote
A: Desolenator is not for everybody. It’s not gonna solve this problem single-handedly, but it can make a dent in it. We welcome any solutions that come along. But this happens to be a very elegant solution because it only uses solar energy and it’s a very compact, robust unit. It doesn’t need much ongoing maintenance and no ongoing cost, really.
If you look at the Pacific Institute you’ll see a graphic of all the conflicts over the last 5,000 years that have been fought because of water. So actually, it’s not that we’re going to have water conflict, it’s been happening for thousands of years.
But I think that a world without this kind of technology is a world that is philosophically misaligned. It’s a world where we’re burning up fossil fuels to power massive desalination lots, where we’re destroying forests in order to plant crops, where the whole direction and trajectory of what we do as a planet is completely out of whack with the long-term survival of our species. Desolenator has to be a vanguard, not just from a technology point of view, but also to pioneer an idea of a different sort of future and then to offer people a mechanism that they can be a part of and actually use to help shape that future.
This company participated in Unreasonable Impact created with Barclays, the world’s first multi-year partnership focused on scaling up entrepreneurial solutions that will help employ thousands while solving some of our most pressing societal challenges.