Seeking Clarity

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Access to clean water is one of the most basic requirements for maintaining human health and one of the most challenging issues in the developing world. In India alone, more than a billion people have limited access to clean drinking water. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.8 million people die each year of preventable diarrheal diseases, many of which are blamed on water contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites. Although many forms of water purification technology are available, a good number of them require a large upfront investment and an expensive infrastructure of pipes and treatment systems.

The problem is particularly challenging in remote areas and in poor communities, but Bothell-based HaloSource has arrived at a small, cheap solution by manufacturing patented water purification technologies that are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for long-term use. The company is active in several markets and has recently seen growth in India, China and Brazil, where it focuses on increasing access to clean water.

HaloSource’s HaloPure system is based on bromine, a halogen in the same family as chlorine and iodine. The company manufactures tiny beads with a halogenated coating. These beads are then placed in a cartridge, and when water flows through it, contact with the large surface area of the beads kills bacteria and viruses on contact. To meet varying international standards, devices manufactured by HaloSource can kill 99.99 percent of viruses and 99.9999 percent of bacteria. Its cartridges can be added to a gravity-fed water canister, which is the most common in-home filtration technology in the developing world. The canisters usually include a ceramic filter that removes particles and cleans out some bacteria and parasites. Adding a cartridge reliably kills any bacteria left behind by the filter, and takes care of viruses such as polio and rotavirus.

The beauty of this setup is its independence. Cartridges require only gravity—no electricity, no plumbing—and one bead-filled vial (some as small as a double-A battery). The unit will last a family of five about six months, processing 1,500 liters of water. In India, a system currently costs between $40 and $60, making it accessible to the nation’s middle tier—about 400 million people—says CEO John Kaestle.

Founded by Jeff Williams in 1998, HaloSource started with 120 angel investors and a dozen staff members whose goal was to commercialize a discovery by S. Davis Worley of Auburn University. Since then, the firm has focused much of its energy on emerging markets.

“The common theme as to why [the initial investors] decided to support the business was the potential of the technology to significantly impact billions of people’s lives,” Kaestle says. By the end of the year, HaloSource expects to have more than 200 employees and major contracts in India, China, Brazil and the United Kingdom. In fact, Kaestle announced recently that its system has been approved in China, making HaloSource the owner of the only disinfection technology to receive approval there.

HaloSource also manufactures products intended for recreational water safety (pools and spas) and environmental remediation (treating storm water and runoff from construction sites). The company has fabricated natural biopolymers in the lab that cause particles in dirty water to clump, making filtration easier and faster. But Kaestle is most excited about the firm’s success at learning to build in emerging markets. “The regulatory hurdles were huge,” he says. “It’s taken a lot of resources and time.”

HaloSource first partnered in 2006 with Eureka Forbes, a major, Mumbai-based marketer of water purifiers. HaloSource also works with between 40 and 50 major consumer-device manufacturers. Kaestle says some of these partners distribute ready-to-use devices made by HaloSource, while others buy key components, which they place into their own products. “There’s no such thing as a standard partner,” Kaestle says. “When you’re a little company and you’re trying to commercialize, you try a lot of things. Some work and some don’t. We’ve learned a lot, and changed a lot.”

The complexion of the business is one thing that has changed remarkably, shifting from mostly microbiologists and chemists to sales professionals and marketing experts. But there are still plenty of white coats and test tubes in evidence. The Bothell facility has a full set of laboratories and everything is tested there first before going on to outside certification.

The only lab without windows is the virology lab, where researchers test the effectiveness of HaloSource systems against viruses to ensure that the units meet EPA standards. “That’s where the really nasty stuff is,” says Andrew Clews, vice president of marketing and product development. “I have no desire to go in there.”

Water issues are expected to become only more troubling in the coming years. A study by the Cass Business School in London predicts a decline in clean water access in both developed and developing countries beginning as early as this year, due to climate change, population growth and pollution from industry, agriculture and warfare. By 2050, researchers expect countries worldwide to be in the throes of an economic crisis brought on by water scarcity.

Clearly, something has to change, and some people are pointing to the sustainability of small-scale commercial solutions. PATH, a Seattle-based nonprofit with a focus on global health, is in the midst of a five-year study designed to uncover the best possible methods for using commercial markets to distribute water treatment devices sustainably. HaloSource’s technology may be part of that plan. Although PATH declines to talk about it, most assume its partnership involves matching HaloSource technology with an appropriate distribution system for impoverished communities.

Kaestle also sees applications for HaloSource technology in natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Japan. The company is already collaborating with a leading nongovernmental organization whose name it can’t reveal. “There are a number of differences between water needs in an emergency response situation and water in a semi-potable situation,” says Clews. “We’re working on those types of products.”

While it’s tempting to imagine clean water someday gushing from taps in communities where there was once no source of safe drinking water, the truth is that point-of-use (POU) water treatment of the sort HaloSource provides may be the most realistic way to address water quality issues. A successful POU system makes complex water-treatment infrastructure unnecessary, and to Kaestle and Clews, that’s as it should be.

“Between global warming, human development, industry and agriculture, we are running out of safe drinking water,” Clews says. “And the cost of building infrastructure is enormous.” For example, the price of rebuilding a water treatment plant in Longview, was recently estimated at $52.6 million, and the Brightwater treatment plant currently under construction in King County was budgeted at $1.8 billion but is expected to exceed that figure because of complications.

“Even if we had the money, it would be decades before anything was finished,” Kaestle adds. “The challenge of replicating the first-world model [of water treatment plants] is massive.” Massive and perhaps wasteful. Kaestle points out that only 3 percent of the water used in Seattle is for drinking, yet all of it is treated to potable water standards. Which makes it even more imperative that, for there to be drinkable water everywhere, the cost of treating it must amount to a drop in the bucket.