After catching Cholera in Venezuela, Martin Wesian realised what a wide-spread problem clear water is. He went back to Vienna, and after a few years of research he founded Helioz, where they invented Wadi: a solar-powered UV-measurement device that can tell whether the water is safe to drink.
We met Martin and his right-hand Manuela Kräuter to learn more.
Yakuzuzu: Let’s start in the very beginning: what happened in Venezuela?
Wesian: I was travelling and working in Venezuela for two years, where I had first-hand experience with a waterborne disease, Cholera. I was really sick. I lost fifteen kilos in ten days. But at least I was lucky to have the opportunity to receive the right medical treatment – only because I could afford it: you don’t get any medication in the hospital, you have to buy it yourself in the pharmacy, and then bring it to the doctors. Crazy! Many of the locals won’t have enough money to get hospitalized.
This makes the prevention of waterborne diseases even more important. It was the first time that I was faced with how widespread of a problem contaminated water is. Years later, already back in Vienna, I read an article about the water-cleaning process “SODIS”, developed by the Swiss Water Research Institute, Eawag. The article just hit me. I wanted to learn more about it, and design a suitable measurement device in order to help people in countries with dirty water.
I signed up for a Master’s Degree in 2007 in Industrial Engineering, my MA thesis was about this device already, where the name Wadi stands for “Water Disinfection”. I founded Helioz three years later, in 2010.
Yakuzuzu: How does this process work?
Wesian: It’s quite simple: If you fill Pet-bottles with contaminated water and expose them to sunlight over a few hours the sun’s UV-radiation will make the water safe to drink.
Yakuzuzu: If it is that simple, why do you even need a measurement device? Was the Swiss Water Institute not successful with its innovation?
Wesian: The problem was the lack of acceptance. People didn’t feel safe enough to use their method. The time needed to expose the bottles to the sunlight depends on the strength of the Sun and its UV-radiation, which then depends on the place and daytime. Therefore a fix-time design isn’t even possible: it can last 6 hours or even more until the water becomes safe to drink. Another issue is that people in Third World countries can’t always measure time, they don’t have watches or clocks around. How would they know then when the process is finished?
Yakuzuzu: Did you get any support from the university?
Wesian: I got support for the research from different institutes, but initially I financed everything from my savings. If you launch a startup in Austria, you are not at the best place to get financial help — you might have better chances in our neighbour countries or in the US. Austria´s startup scene is still behind, though on its way to improve.
Yakuzuzu: Do you have investors now? Who is actually paying for Wadi?
Kräuter: We have three different types of customers: NGOs, private companies that are using Wadi for their Corporate Responsibility statement by putting their Logo on our product, and the local distributors. We are distributing our product in over 50 countries all over the world, although we are focusing on a subset of countries to provide higher quality standards and fulfil their special needs.
Wesian: Yes we do have some investors. But the challenge is to find someone who doesn’t only want to make money with our product. We already said no to one investor, who wanted to reduce the lifetime of the product for quick profit. That’s not our goal: we want to help people first, and making money is secondary. That’s how our world works today: people want to make quick money, and ignore social responsibility altogether. So we rejected more than 1 million euro – a lot of money!
Yakuzuzu: Can people actually buy Wadi? How much does one device cost?
Kräuter: One Wadi costs $16, but the more you buy the lower the price will get. And compared to other methods, like boiling the water or using chlorine, it’s really cheap in the long run: you only need the Sun’s power to make it work. You can use one Wadi for many years.
Yakuzuzu: What are the challenges in your business?
Kräuter: As our product is a preventive one, we need to tell people about the process. We often need to travel to the countries where our product is sold, and do educational work on the spot. If you only put Wadi in the supermarkets people won’t buy it: they have to learn about the process and be familiar with SODIS first.
98% of the territories do not even have toilets or water taps, but every territory has different needs. We mainly collaborate with local partners, because you have to be at the place to see the reality, and to know how to deal with the situation there. You cannot just work from Vienna and sell Wadi to those countries. We have to travel a lot, get a better understanding of the life of the people in those countries to develop the best possible operation strategy.
For me that’s actually the most exciting and beautiful part of the work. Even though it’s very hard to see how people are living in those areas: they lack basic needs like food and water. If you are missing these, you will also struggle in every other part of life: having a job is difficult, education is difficult and so on. Water is like air. You can´t survive without it. Your view of life changes completely when you’re working in this crisis areas.
Wesian: Financing is also not the easiest part. As I mentioned before Austria is ways behind than other developed countries. It’s quite a lot of work to just find the investors, who share our will to help those living in underdeveloped countries, and not just get rich.
Yakuzuzu: What are your next dreams?
Wesian: To help people living a better and healthier life with Wadi. To decrease the number of deaths in those countries in need, by making the water safe to drink. Having a small impact in this world by changing something to the better – my goal and my dream.
Kräuter: Totally agreed. It makes me happy to wake up every day, go to work and to know that my work, what I am doing is meaningful. It makes me feel alive.
Yakuzuzu: Beside the water problem in the third world countries, what else would you change in our world?
Wesian: The “turbo-capitalism”. And of course like in the beauty contests: world peace!
Yakuzuzu: How do you manage to keep your balance and stay motivated?
Kräuter: It´s important to focus on the long term. Staying optimistic and not to be intent to much on the moment.
Yakuzuzu: What’s the meaning of life? Do you think about those things?
Wesian: 42! Did you read the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”
The guys seemed to have struggled finding a better answer.
“Finding happiness” – said one of them after a long silence, and they seemed to be happy with that.
For more about Wadi and the team: www.helioz.org