This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Seeing promise in water purification

A local entrepreneur focusing on quick and cheap ways to purify drinking water is getting a double boost this fall.

PortAPure Inc., launched in late 2010 by George Page, was selected by Impact Engine as one of the first eight startups that will benefit from mentoring and introductions to investors. Impact Engine is a new Chicago-based accelerator program that specializes in working with early stage companies that tackle societal and environmental problems through business-oriented solutions.

Meanwhile, PortAPure this month was named one of 10 finalists in the City of Chicago Treasurer’s Office Business Plan Competition. More than 200 startups and researchers in area labs submitted applications to the contest. Chicago Treasurer Stephanie Neely will award the final three winners a total of $10,000 at the Small Business and Entrepreneur Expo on October 5 at UIC Forum.

George Page

The first product Mr. Page developed is a point-of-use filter and purification device that allows individuals to get water from a lake, river or stream and purify it and filter it so the liquid can be consumed safely. One tablet purifies a liter of water. The pocket device comes with a mixer to help stir the tablet and filter out the additional sediment from the water. It’s intended to be portable, easy to use and highly affordable, he explains.

Mr. Page’s “aha” moment that inspired his water purification startup occurred when he was watching TV after the Haiti earthquake hit in 2010.

He saw actress Ashley Judd in Haiti demonstrating how survivors were boiling contaminated water in a pot with purification tablets, then filtering it through a t-shirt into another pot to strain out additional impurities to make it safe for drinking.

Mr. Page, a chemical engineer, had spent close to a decade working for the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management as a control engineer managing the city’s water purification process. Mr. Page decided to use his expertise to invent a quick, inexpensive way for people in dire straits to transform dirty water into a drinkable life source. It took close to a year to design the initial product, begin manufacturing and sign up non-governmental organizations providing relief in Haiti to place orders for the kits, he says.

So far, more than half of PortAPure’s sales are from NGOs responding to disaster situations, including the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami that devastated parts of Japan last year. However, NGOs also are purchasing the filtration kits to supply them to communities without clean drinking water on a daily basis. There are at least one billion people on the planet who are living without regular access to potable water, according to the World Health Organization.

Mr. Page won’t provide revenues, but says the company this year already has surpassed first-year sales. The average order last year was about $1,000 per NGO. This year, the average order is $10,000 to $15,000, he says.

Crain’s met with Mr. Page, 38, this week to learn more about his company and how the incubator program and competition will help PortAPure grow.

Crain’s: You started the company by sending your water filter kits to NGOs in Haiti. Where else are you selling them and who are your customers?

Mr. Page: We’ve done business with a couple dozen NGOs. They’re our customers right now and they deliver our product to people who need clean drinking water. We’ve gone into Thailand to answer flooding problems late last year, and we’ve sold our products in Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and elsewhere.

Your company will get lots of exposure as part of the first group participating in Impact Engine’s 12-week incubation program. What will you do there specifically?

We’ll be right next to Excelerate Labs in the Merchandise Mart so it will be really exciting just to be there for 12 weeks. We’ll be paired with mentors who will help us develop our business and refine our pitch so we’re ready when we present our company to a round of venture capitalists for financing at the end. We hope to use those private funds to launch our new product.

Tell us about your latest product.

Our new product — called PureBottle — is a nanotechnology filter that allows someone to put water in a specialized bottle that filters water inside with the force of someone squeezing it. All the bacteria and viruses are filtered out with one squeeze. We’ve done lab analysis to show its effectiveness.

If you win, what will you do with the prize money from the City of Chicago’s Treasurer’s Office contest?

We’d use it to manufacture our new product. Some parts will be made in illinois and other parts in Wisconsin. We’ve got the commitment from an NGO in Tanzania, we just need the funding to get the manufacturing going. We also received $20,000 from Impact Engine as part of the award for being selected in the first cohort and we’ll use that for manufacturing as well.

What’s one of the biggest challenges, aside from financing, that you’re facing right now?

We don’t have to sell the NGO on the need for our product because it’s inherent to them. They’re receptive to look for these kinds of solutions, but we have to convince them our product is effective. The early stage challenge has been to get the decision-makers at the NGOs to do a pilot study and see how good we are. We’re hoping Impact Engine and some of its investors that are connected will help us by making important introductions.

What kind of growth are you expecting over the next five years?

We’re hoping to be in 75 countries in five years with direct sales to consumers. We’d like to get our technology through direct sales and licensing so our products are available to anyone who wants to buy them, not just NGOs. We’d like to see ourselves with partnerships and relationships where we can have social and environmental impact across the globe.

Water conservation is viewed as one of the next big climate change issues. In some parts of the world, it’s already a problem. How can your company help address that concern?

We’re working on creative applications for our products. Even though there’s reduced concentration of clean water in some areas, there may be salt water that’s available, or re-use water. With our filtering products, we might be able to take sea water or rain water and purify it. It’s very difficult to create water but we can think of ways to make water drinkable that would be undrinkable in normal situations. We know we can make slight modifications to what we already have and we’re researching new technology right now too. This is a growth opportunity for us as water becomes more scarce, but we can make a huge social impact here too.

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