Water revolution: What started in Hamilton is saving lives worldwide

As the second class of Pipeline H2O gets ready to convene in Hamilton and Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood starting next month, at least one organization from the original class has been helping disaster-plagued areas like parts of Florida hit by Hurricane Irma and storm-devastated Puerto Rico.

WaterStep, a non-profit based in Louisville, Ky., has created what it calls a WOW — Water on Wheels — unit. A WOW unit is similar in size to a hotel-room cleaning cart and cleanses water in the developing world and other areas after disasters.

A for-profit company owned by WaterStep sells the machines, providing money for WaterStep’s charitable efforts of to serve clean water in the developing world.

“Water is a critical foundational step in responding to disasters,” WaterStep founder Mark Hogg told an audience in Over-the-Rhine in May, showing off the WOW.

The pipeline program was established because supporters say water and sewage technology could grow to be part of an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. It also has the potetial to save millions of lives per year.

Leaders in Hamilton and the region want to make this area a hub for innovation in the water industry, hoping to brand it as the “Silicon Valley of Water.” Hamilton, leaders say, is already known for its tasty water. Now, they want to reach globally.

Benefactors of the first class included WaterStep, whose devices are helping people in hurricane-impacted areas. One device can provide as much as 10,000 gallons of clean water a day.

The cart, which can be operated using solar power, batteries or electricity from the grid, takes water from streams or hydrants and runs them through filters, with optional ultraviolet treatment and purification using salts. It also can provide disinfecting solutions for medical workers.

Hogg told the Cincinnati audience in May, “We could teach every single one of you in a matter of hours how to operate this machine and save lives.”

In Puerto Rico, WaterStep has delivered more than 70 “water disaster kits,” which aren’t as elaborate as the WOWs, and sell for $4,500, as opposed to $15,000 for a WOW.

“We’re about to put in 20 more down there,” Hogg said.

Hogg, who has been in Puerto Rico since the storms, said the disasters have thrown the US territory back several decades: “There was no safe water. There was no disinfectant. These people were in severe need.”

Conditions now are so unsanitary, residents have to be reminded to wash their hands constantly to avoid spread of disease.

People pulled over to the sides of roads, where they used PVC pipes to direct water from rivulets and streams into milk jugs and other containers.

Hogg saw mothers were crying because their children had stomach aches after drinking the water, he said.

The governor’s wife in Puerto Rico bought 56 of the less expensive units, while General Electric in Louisville donated others.

The machines also can reduce the need to dispose of millions of water bottles that can arrive within weeks of disasters, Hogg noted.

Water is a big deal globally, for health reasons and financial ones.

Maysoon Sharif, founder of AguaClara, based in Ithaca, N.Y., said that 750 million people around the world lack access to clean drinking water and 3 million per year die from waterborne diseases. Her company produces non-electric water-cleaning facilities that can be used in impoverished villages around the globe.

Pipeline H2O estimates water technologies can become a $271 billion industry.

Start-ups “need support, and they need customers,” Rahul Bawa, chairman of the Hamilton Mill business accelerator and the Pipeline H2O program, has said. “We really built this program to where we want to give them support, and provide them customers.”

The Pipeline tagline is, “Pilot Locally and Deploy Globally.”

To help the Pipeline companies, “We formed relationships that took advantage of the tremendous amount of resources and assets that we have throughout the region, specifically around water, industry and start-up development,” Bawa said.

Pipeline leaders made connections for the first class last year with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has a major research laboratory near the University of Cincinnati. They introduced them to water and beverage experts in the region, including company officials from Pepsi. The Greater Cincinnati Foundation lent its expertise with a number of regional waterworks and sewer utilities, including those operated by the city of Hamilton.

“Our goal is to really accelerate and commercialize” the companies’ products, while helping create “smarter cities, more efficient cities,” Bawa added.

The first Pipeline H2O class had six members. Two of them, Power Tech Water of Lexington, Ky., and Cincinnati-based Searen, each won $25,000 after peer-review judging of the companies and their products. This year, two firms again will be chosen for $25,000 prizes.

Interestingly for the program that hopes to become a “Silicon Valley for Water,” some of this year’s class come from the original Silicon Valley. They are attracted, as was an Australian firm, by the wealth of organizations, such as the U.S. EPA, several area colleges, military institutions, utilities and world-class businesses, that can lend their expertise to the smaller companies’ aspirations.

Just before an interview on Wednesday, Hogg said he and other employees were using a white board to review things they learned from the Pipeline program.

WaterStep was helped by Pipeline’s program in many ways, including, as a non-profit, increasing its communication skills and creating sales plans for the WOW units, Hogg said. The organization keeps in regular contact with Bawa.

“We have3 such incredible confidence because of Pipeline,” Hogg said. “We all just celebrate them.”

Pipeline H2O’s initial class

Here were the six companies or non-profit organizations that completed the initial Pipeline H2O program last year:

  • AguaClara, based in Ithaca, N.Y., a non-profit, builds municipal-sized water treatment facilities in poor countries such as Honduras and India.
  • ANDalyze, of Champaign, Ill., has created devices that can test for heavy metals and other dangerous contaminants in water. Rather than taking weeks and hundreds of dollars per sample, its hand-held devices can test water for the contaminants in less than a minute for about $6.
  • kWRiver Hydroelectric, based in Hamilton, has developed hydroelectric facilities that can be used at low-level dams, like the one on the Great Miami River south of downtown Hamilton, to produce environmentally friendly electricity.
  • WaterStep, based in Louisville, Ky., has developed a compact "Water on Wheels" unit that provides rapid-response water-cleaning that's needed in disasters and emergencies, where water is at a premium.
  • PowerTech, based in Lexington, Ky., has developed a technology that cleans and purifies water, removing salts, corrosive minerals and toxic materials without having to use costly membranes, high-pressure pumps or any consumables.
  • Searen, based in Cincinnati, is helping water-dependent industries using v acuum air-lift technology that is simple and versitile. It streamlines water treatment. Its first market aim is farm-raised fish.

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