Creating Local Aquapreneurs
UN Top Innovator Swiss start-up Openversum provides water purification resources and education to marginalized communities
By Suzanne Forcese
“From the outset, we knew we didn’t just want to develop a product and then export it. We were looking to export the knowledge.”.” -- Olivier Gröninger, CEO & Co-Founder Openversum
Openversum trains local people in poor countries to manufacture water filters and set up businesses. To date, contaminated water has been transformed into drinking water for over 500 people in Columbia and Ecuador while also transforming their lives
Interview with Laura Stocco, CTO Openversum
WT: Remarkably, Openversum was recently founded at the beginning of 2023. Please introduce yourself to our viewers and give us an overview of Openversum.
Stocco: The founding team of Olivier Gröninger CEO, Lorenzo Donadio (CIO) and myself as CTO came very organically – at a Hult Prize Conference in 2022. Our drive to have a positive impact in bringing safe water to underprivileged communities brought us together.
Openversum started when Olivier Gröninger, our CEO, a chemical engineer, was in his Ph.D. at The Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH). Olivier visited Columbia experiencing firsthand the safe water crisis. He was motivated to leverage the technology we have in Switzerland, in a way that is adapted to rural contexts in Latin America.
Under the supervision of Professor Wendelin Stark (an expert in nanotechnology), he developed a patent-pending environmentally friendly, low-cost manufacturing process for a drinking water filter
My expertise as an environmental engineer specializing in water sanitation, and Lorenzo’s expertise in data science made the three of us a perfect fit.
Openversum (“open” meaning “all-inclusive”; “versum” meaning “universal”) makes water purification technology accessible to all sustainably through local entrepreneurship.
We provide jobs to those in most need. Openversum tackles the challenge of safe and affordable drinking water by combining an innovative filtration membrane system with microfranchising.
A digital business support platform allows our entrepreneurs to create sustainable businesses, manage their resources, and escape poverty.
Lack of access to safe drinking water and poverty are often correlated. Families can spend up to 25% of their income to access drinking water; kids miss 443 million school days each year due to water-borne diseases; and women spend millions of hours globally managing water and caring for sick family members.
It is costly to be poor. In rural areas, 80% of people do not have access to safe drinking water and a poverty rate of 17.2% is three times higher than in urban areas. The recent pandemic and climate change highlight the urgency to build more economically and environmentally resilient societies to safeguard public health.
It all starts will safe water.
Our goal is to allow millions of people access to safe drinking water while creating thousands of work opportunities for local entrepreneurs in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
WT: Recently you were invited to participate in the UN Water Conference as a Top Innovator. You have also been recognized with several awards. What have these accolades meant to the team?
Stocco: One particularly meaningful thing is that we have been recognized by juried experts and audiences who may not have direct experience with the water crisis. We believe that it is critical to amplify the voices of those most affected by lack of access to safe drinking water and these accolades give us confidence that we are succeeding in our mission.
It was heartening that many of the largest organizations in the water sector are aligned with our mission and recognize the need for innovative, grassroots solutions delivered through efficient and sustainable distribution networks to rural areas
WT: Describe how the Openversum system works.
Stocco: Our technology is a gravity-driven household-level water filtration system designed to purify highly contaminated river water with a remarkable efficiency rate 0f 99.9999% for pathogens; ≥99% for heavy metals; and ≥ 99% for micropollutants and pesticides.
The filter system consists of 3 layers. The first is a layer of activated carbon that traps unwanted compounds, and any pesticides present in the water. The water then passes through a membrane with micropores that filters out bacteria and other microbiological contaminants. Finally, a layer of ferric hydroxide powder binds heavy metals and phosphates
With a high flow rate of more than 10 L/h, it is one of the fastest and most efficient household-level filters on the market – making it a cost-effective solution for communities in need.
WT: What is unique about your approach?
Stocco: Two billion people still do not have access to safe drinking water. Despite all existing technical water solutions, we still fail to provide this essential service. Technical solutions have failed to be implemented sustainably. They are too costly, too resource-intensive, inconvenient, and not adapted to the people who need them most. Marginalized communities continue to boil water using energy from non-renewable sources.
We therefore quickly understood that technology is not enough. Innovation and empowering distribution models that enable all actors to work in synergy are what is needed.
That is why we do not ship a finished filter but all the knowledge, tools and materials necessary to allow local actors to become water entrepreneurs and create a lasting water business. This “business in a box” enables those at the bottom of the pyramid to become economically self-reliant.
WT: What can you tell us about your projects so far?
Stocco: We have 500 happy filter users and more than 20 entrepreneurs in Colombia and Ecuador.
This means 500 lives made healthier, women empowered, and a greater chance for those households to escape poverty.
We were blown away by the initiative of our entrepreneurs. After providing them with the training and tools to assemble filters, our Ecuadorian entrepreneurs set up regular entrepreneur meetings and present the product at local fairs.
This proves that while we provide technical knowledge, social and cultural knowledge lies within community members. Who better than your neighbour to know what you need and why.
Women have also shown how great they are a sharing the knowledge they obtain through our training –kids now know about the importance of safe water!
Another amazing thing is that NGOs and professionals from all around the globe are reaching out to us. We now have partnerships set up in Uganda, India, and Malawi where millions need a solution. This makes us even more excited about our impact.
WT: Moving forward...what’s next?
Stocco: We are preparing for our next large pilot in Colombia with an improved filter. Two regional managers will be monitoring 50 entrepreneurs starting this summer.
This will act as our proof of scale, allowing us to refine our marketing strategies and digital platform. At this stage of our venture, we are looking for impact-driven investors to provide millions with safe and clean drinking water by 2025.
I would also like to highlight how important it is to foster synergies within the water innovation ecosystem. We have fellow start-ups that work on pipe leakage, water reuse, and desalination. We all target a different part of the water ecosystem. As a package, we have the potential to change the world! Our hope is that investors and international backing will join our vision in this comprehensive approach to the water crisis.