After years of developing and implementing water-treatment solutions in Third World countries, engineer Bradley Pierik invented a simple, hand-held filtration device that turns non-potable water into drinking water by pressing it through a fibre membrane.
To put this valuable tool into the hands of those who need it, Mr. Pierik decided that the best approach would be to create a business. Having witnessed the large market demand for clean water in the developing world, he was convinced that a for-profit approach to delivering the filters would be more efficient than a charity model that would rely on donations to fund hand-outs.
But how could this engineer with no business experience or contacts launch a company to meet the needs of those deprived of clean water and still flourish and grow?
While studying engineering at the University of Toronto, Mr. Pierik spent four months in Africa drilling wells with the Kale Heywet Water Program in Ethiopia. While there, he noticed that the water purification products being used were overly complex, slow and hard to use, making them prone to disuse or malfunction.
As a result, he became convinced that the best way to make drinking water available in the Third World was to create simple, inexpensive, and durable water-purifying solutions.
“My goal was to make a water filter that is so user-friendly that you can give it to a child anywhere in the world and, without any training or written instructions, that child can immediately treat any available water to drinkable standards,” Mr. Pierik says.
And so the idea was born.
Mr. Pierik knew he needed the business skills and contacts that would help him turn his idea into a thriving social enterprise.
While studying toward his masters in engineering at the University of British Columbia, he started moonlighting as a business student, taking courses through the Sauder School of Business’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School.
His breakthrough came with a course in technology entrepreneurship, which teams up engineering and MBA students to produce a viable business plan for a new product or system.
Mr. Pierik’s filter became the focus of his group’s project. While having the opportunity to refine his product, he also gained the key skills he needed to enter the marketplace, from applying for patents to raising funds from investors.
Once he had the skills, he needed the connections.
After working with the Canadian charity Water School to field-test his prototypes in Uganda, Kenya, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Mr. Pierik began forging relationships in Vancouver’s burgeoning community of business people excited about blending entrepreneurial goals with social advocacy.
Quickly, Vancouver business incubator Institute B became an important collaborator. The incubator, which was founded by a group of entrepreneurs to help fledging social and environmental business get off the ground, began playing an integral role by advising on market-entry strategies and assisting with fundraising from the Vancouver investment community.
With the assistance of the institute, Mr. Pierik established the company Twothirds Water Inc. and ran through a process to determine where the new enterprise would have the best chance at success.
“We considered three factors for each market: barriers to entry, the degree of support we could expect from our contacts in that space, and the level of demand for our product in that market,” Mr. Pierik says
At the end of the process, India came out on top.
With $10,000 in funds raised and a good deal more expected in the near future with the assistance of Institute B, Mr. Pierik says he is ready move forward.
He is currently in the process of marketing the filter to potential partners operating in India, as well as large construction and mining operations that have a vested interest in keeping their work forces healthy. With these organizations paying the bills, Twothirds Water stands to make a profit while providing those deprived of clean water with the tool they need.
With a Chinese manufacturer poised to go into production and a number of in-market connections in India solidified with the help of Institute B, Mr. Pierik says Twothirds Water is where it needs to be to move forward with the production of 50,000 to 80,000 units in the coming months.
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story contained information that has now been removed. This version is the corrected one.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Chloe Tergiman is an assistant professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches in the strategy and business economics division.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
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