By Vivek Wadhwa
Vice President of Academics and Innovation, Singularity University.
Why should poor people receive the most obsolete technologies--when their lives can be impacted the most by advances in technology? Should my education and talent be used to make rich and powerful corporations even more so--or to help those in need? These are questions that Alfredo Zolezzi agonized over after achieving early success as a scientist and entrepreneur.
Then he read a United Nations report that said that 884 million people are without access to safe drinking water and that 1.5 million children under five years of age die each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases. This pushed him over the edge. He knew this was something that technology could easily help fix--though no one had done anything about it.
Zolezzi decided to stop working on products for the oil industry and to instead repurpose his oil-extraction technology to eliminate microbial contaminants from water. He had achieved great success by developing technology that enhanced the recovery of oil from abandoned oil wells using high-frequency, high-powered ultrasound waves. He had ideas for new technologies that could reduce the cost of refining heavy oil as well as its viscosity and sulphur content. Zolezzi could have made billions by perfecting these. Yet he chose to use his technology and talent for doing good for the world, because, as he said to me, he wanted to "reach inner peace and be able to carry on living in this world full of contrasts".
Zolezzi was motivated by a desire to help those in need, but also saw this as a business opportunity. He says that profits, success, entrepreneurship, and social good can all go hand in hand. He is determined to build a sustainable business that does good for the world and brings in revenue and profits as any other business may do.
He started development of a water-sanitization technology in mid 2009. Eighteen months later, Zolezzi's team developed a breakthrough system that converts water into a plasma state through a high-intensity electrical field and eliminates microbial content through electroporation, oxidation, ionization, UV and IR radiation, and shockwaves. They installed it in a Santiago slum in mid 2011 in which people had lived for more than 20 years without potable water and without bathrooms.
The technology changed the lives of the slum dwellers. Before, they had frequently contracted diseases from the water that they drank. Months after the water sanitization technology was installed, no one had fallen sick.
When I visited in April 2012, Rosa Reyes, community leader of the Fundo San Jose shantytown, told me how grateful she was to Zolezzi and his team for changing their lives. Her neighbors no longer had to keep borrowing money from each other to pay for medical care. Their quality of life and dignity had improved dramatically.
This technology was recently tested for conformance to EPA guidelines by the leading U.S. authority, NSF International. According to e-mails and test results that Zolezzi shared with me, it not only exceeded NSF's highest standards, but killed 100% of all bacteria and viruses in the heavily tainted samples that NSF tested.
Village-suitable units of the plasma-based water-sanitization technology--which consume less energy than a hairdryer--should cost around $500 when mass-produced. At such a price, a technology developed by a small team in Chile could make a valuable contribution to solving one of humanity's greatest problems. And it could easily be a billion-dollar-per-year business.
This technology has applications for homes all over the world as well as in hospitals, airplanes, and practically everywhere else where water is consumed. Americans spend $12 billion every year on bottled water because they don't trust the water from their taps. And this expensive water sometimes has a higher bacterial content than tap water. Consumers would readily buy add-ons to their water filters that provided them with 100% bacteria- and virus-free water.
So it is not only the poor who will benefit from the technology.
The moral of the story is that entrepreneurs should focus on building technologies that do social good. There is much less competition, and the rewards are not only financial--they also include attaining the inner peace that comes of helping others.
This material published courtesy of Singularity University.