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Students create water purification startup

Students create water purification startup

March 4, 2019 at 12:00am

How do you get your water? You probably have a water fountain nearby and the tap at home or even a water bottle in your hands right now. Now, imagine having to walk many miles carrying gallons of water out of sheer necessity?

Unfortunately, for some impoverished communities in third world countries, this is a reality they know all too well. Many have learned to live with the uncertainty of clean water and the task of collecting it. A group of FIU Honors College students are working to change that.

Social Entrepreneurship, a course offered by the Honors College, challenges students to create a unique project to tackle a pressing social problem of the students’ choice. After noting the seriousness of water cleanliness, Paula Perez, a junior mechanical engineering student, and her fellow team members — Andrew Bowyer, a mechanical engineering undergrad; Paula Perez, mechanical engineering undergraduate; Daniela Cadena, an international business grad student; and Gianfranco Colombi, a mechanical engineer undergrad — wanted to do something about it. 

As a result, the SWEET roller was born. SWEET stands for Sterilized Water Energy Efficient Transport. The roller is a 75-liter container designed to provide efficient water transport and purify the water as it is transported. As users utilize the roller, the movement creates kinetic energy, which then transforms into rotational energy as the roller moves. A small generator within the roller then transforms that energy into electrical energy that powers what is known as a UV-C LED array that kills pathogens in the water.

The SWEET team is confident that this will have a tremendous impact on communities and have started a startup. Just one SWEET roller would cover the basic drinking, cooking and hygiene needs of five people, replace four trips to and from water sources, and save a family thousands of hours a year that could be dedicated to work or education.

To test how the roller would impact these communities, Perez and Bowyer, went directly to the source. The two embarked on a journey to Colombia to study the Wayyu tribe. The Wayuu tribe is located in La Guajira, Northern Colombia, a location of particular interest to the team because of the water insecurity in the region. They spent one week with the community.

Andrew Bowyer and Paula Perez in Colombia
The desert-like conditions make access to water more of a pressing need for this community. On the first day, the two spoke to mothers who were taking classes at the school and asked them, “what is your biggest problem with your water journey?” The responses varied from problems with how hot the conditions were and the distance they traveled to get to the water to the heaviness of the water-retrieving containers. One mother walked three miles to the water source, which oftentimes would be a government-supplied windmill whereas another mother only walked roughly one mile, but would do so around 10 times a day in order to provide for her large family.

“There is a human being behind this whole process, and we need to cater to their needs,” says Perez. “SWEET is a social enterprise.” The team members see themselves as not just engineers creating a product, but a group of people who want to equip other people with a tool to use that can change their lives.

Having lived in unfamiliar conditions where they were constantly thinking about access to water and directly dealing with the effects of not being surrounded by easily-accessible and clean water, the team now see water completely different. Going from constant water security in Miami to showering with buckets in Colombia, the two learned more by going to the source instead of simply researching the issue from afar.

With the combination of mechanical engineering and social entrepreneurship, Bowyer, Perez and the rest of the SWEET team plan to start with the Wayuu tribe and eventually expand to as many water-insecure places as possible. The next steps for the team involve further developing the roller, gaining insight into the business aspects of running a startup and increasing the exposure of the brand.

The whole experience has made the team understand the different realities of communities like the Wayuu, where the threat of water insecurity and water uncleanliness affect all aspects of daily life.

“This is just the start,” Bowyer says. “You can be a normal person and achieve great things if you have the confidence.”