Point Breeze start-up Rorus Inc. develops innovative water filter
May 6, 2016 12:00 AM
Corinne Clinch, from Rorus, which is working on a way to purify water using silver nanoparticles, presents her company's history and product to the people attending the AlphaLab Demo Day held at Stage AE on the North Shore. The company's product is called Device for Emergency Water.
Corinne Clinch presents her company's history and product to the AlphaLab Demo Day.
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It doesn’t always take a nonprofit to change the world. Just ask Corinne Clinch.
Fewer than 18 months after finishing her master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University, the 23-year-old insists a for-profit model works best for her Point Breeze start-up to supply critical water filters in the developing world.
“Money makes money. The fact that we have a profitable opportunity is what brings us investors, and investors are what allow us to grow so quickly,” said Ms. Clinch, who co-founded Rorus Inc. with classmate Uriel Eisen in summer 2014. “We don’t have to wait for donations or aid grants.”
Their self-built opportunity stems from an innovative filter design that she and Mr. Eisen, 23, began developing in school. They have since raised about $300,000 to refine, test and promote their method — largely through start-up contests, angel investors and other backers.
Although Ms. Clinch said the technology is proprietary, she cast it as a departure from conventional point-of-use purification, which often hinges on chlorine, ultraviolet light, or porous filters for home and business use.
Rorus filters act more “like a magnet for pathogens than a net,” she said, employing a silver residual that inhibits microorganisms. A carbon layer helps pull out chemicals, while another part — “a secret sauce” — helps keep bacteria and viruses at bay.
“Many water filters work well in the lab but fail in the field because they don’t address the possibility for human error, which has informed every step of our design process,” said Mr. Eisen, who is Rorus’ chief information officer.
He said Rorus delivers in part by forgoing a reservoir to store filtered water, something in other systems that can allow for re-contamination before use. Instead, Rorus’ designs clean the water just before it’s used, counting on gravity to fuel a rapid flow through the filtration layers and out of a spigot.
The approach works in a backpack-style device that’s suitable for families, in an individual filter meant for personal use and in cartridges modified to fit at the bottom of a bucket, according to the company.
Ms. Clinch and Mr. Eisen deployed the bucket method during a February pilot effort in a village in India, where they launched one of several effectiveness reviews. It’s set to run about a year, the expected lifespan of the family-size filters.
“In the developing world setting, for people to be able to afford it, it’s going to have to be very, very inexpensive,” said Jim Smith, an environmental-engineering professor at the University of Virginia. He said simplicity will be another key in encouraging new users, many of whom may be unfamiliar with such technology.
At Charlottesville, Va.-based MadiDrop, a new public benefit company where Mr. Smith is chief scientist, organizers are hoping for first-year sales of at least 100,000 filtration units in the developing world. Their method is a $5, cookie-sized tablet that’s dropped into a water-storage container. The MadiDrop uses silver ions to clean a family’s water supply for at least six months.
That’s just one among a bevy of personal water-purification products in a sector worth an estimated $18 billion a year worldwide, including about $6 billion in sales in India. Rorus plans first to sell filters in India for in-home uses and for disaster relief in monsoon season, focusing on sales to consumers and to nongovernmental organizations that help the poor, Ms. Clinch said.
The company had yet to set exact prices but expects them to be more affordable than some conventional filters. While many people in India spend just more than one rupee per liter for water — or around 15 cents — Rorus plans to offer clean water for less than half that cost. The group hopes to have its first orders ready for NGOs this monsoon season, which begins in June.
“That’s a tall order. We’re trying to get it ready in time,” said Ms. Clinch, who is Rorus’ CEO. She projected sales of 15,000 by next February.
Some of those may materialize through Rorus’ website, where the five-person company hopes to offer direct sales by summer. Trade-secret components will be made in the United States, but the company hopes to manufacture “as much of the filters as possible in the countries where we’re selling,” Ms. Clinch said.
“We’re commercializing a new technology. A lot of other filters have sort of limitations where you need to pump them or change out or replace the filter — things like that,” said Rorus chief business officer Kyle Henson. “We really designed our products with those limitations in mind.”
He said the company’s filters remove viruses, bacteria and protozoa microorganisms — along with 95 percent of chemicals such as lead and arsenic — from fresh water. Rorus expects growth in military, governmental and recreational markets in time, Mr. Henson said.
“Everybody needs water,” he said. “Everybody’s our target market eventually.”
Ms. Clinch sees the filters as a possible “transitional technology” to safeguard household water supplies and reduce illness until developing countries bolster their municipal water treatment.
“I think too often in public health, people are blamed for their own health,” she said. “When a flower isn’t blooming, you fix the environment, not the flower.”
Adam Smeltz: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2625 or on Twitter @asmeltz.
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