The water crusaders

A startup works zealously towards water and sanitation solutions. What it cares less for are designations; a co-founder calls himself ‘chief bullshit officer\'.

Published: 07th September 2013 07:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th September 2013 07:37 AM   |  A+A-

07waters

The website for TernUp Research Labs, a recent startup involved in water and sanitation issues, describes its founders as 'a nebulous collective of people with different backgrounds, working together on what feels right'. And for the bunch of eclectic foursome, it is water that has to be right.

With millions risking fluorosis and arsenic poisoning around the world, the four brains believe that the first step to address this issue is reliable testing of water.

So after considerable brainstorming, Arun Kumar, Samuel Rajkumar, Saurabh Levin and Nishchal Halery, the team that make TernUP, came up with Caddisfly. "The idea is to develop a low cost water testing kit that will be portable, reasonably accurate, and easy to use on the field," says Samuel.

Their kit will enable communities to evolve locally relevant and sustainable systems for better drinking water. “Ours is an environment sensitive company. No substantial work has been done in the water space so far,” says Samuel.

First draw

While Samuel was working as a consultant with the India Water Portal (IWP), a project of Arghyamm, a not for profit organisation, they held a water hackathon in October 2011, in a bid to find simple answers to water issues, and Samuel was instantly hooked. He asked around IWP as to what was the urgent problem faced by water infrastructures in the country. The unanimous reply was the extremely high levels of fluoride and arsenic in drinking water. He quickly got together a team of talented techies as well as art and design students and called them the Jugaad Sensors.

The group found a way to connect the current fluoride testing machines to mobile phones, so testing could be done more easily and from anywhere. They called private suppliers, who make these testers, but when they were quoted the price, Rs 1 lakh a piece, they realised if they could not afford one, they will have to build one. And just like that, Caddisfly was born.

Caddisfly magic

Named after the bio-indicators of pure water - caddisflies, which are flies that inhabit clean water - the product is a water testing kit.

The kit that connects to smart phones through bluetooth, also has GPS capability and one can see the results directly on their phones. The kit costs about `2,500 and tests for fluoride, arsenic, coliform bacteria, chloride, iron and more. Each test can be done separately for a cost between `8 to `50.

Funding trouble

The group soon found that convincing investors and incubators, that there is a real need for a water testing kit, was quite a challenge. “But we haven’t really reached anywhere on that front. At first, TernUp worked as a consulting company as well, hoping to bring in funds through consultations and then pump that money into developing our product. But we realised that consultation was taking too much time and effort, which we should be diverting towards the developing of Caddisfly. So we have stopped,” says Samuel.

Recognition begins

Sanitation Hackathon 2012, a collaboration of experts who aim at improving public health in the developing world, held a 14-city event, with more than 100 software developers from Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi participating. The event held at the Pune campus of Infosys on December 1 and 2, 2012, aimed to develop solutions to some of the most pressing sanitation problems.

TernUp emerged as the winner of the year's Hackathon for two applications: one for tracking toilet usage and the other for detecting clogged pipes. "There are a lot of organisations that build these public toilets and leave but nobody knows if these toilets are being used. Our hack consists of a toilet light that switches on, when the door is opened. At the same time, it records the number of times the door has been opened in a day," informs Samuel.

The second hack is a device, built with contact microphones, that monitors the clogging of water pipes. By placing the microphones near the pipes and analysing the recorded sound signals, one can detect clogged pipelines.

Bringing change

The group is ready with their first prototype for the fluoride testing kit and according to them the entire Caddisfly kit should be ready in the next two months. “Currently, water testing is either too expensive or the cheap chemical kits that one can buy are unreliable. Ironically, water treatment is quite a cheap. But if people can’t afford to test their water in the first place, how are they supposed to know what to treat for? We are here to bring a change to this situation,” says Samuel.

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