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WaterScope: Meet the Team Using Machine Learning to Ensure Water Is Safe to Drink


Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winners have been officially announced, we are excited for you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition awarded its largest prize pool ever, $1 million USD, to 20 winning teams from around the world.

When Alexander Patto, Nalin Patel, Tianheng Zhao, and Richard Bowman joined a water purifier project at Cambridge University, they were tasked with answering the question, “How do you tell whether the water is pure?” They realized quickly that the process around testing the microbiology of water hadn’t changed in over 30 years. Globally, water-born bacterial infections lead to over 500,000 diarrheal related deaths each year, which is over 2,000 deaths every day (more than malaria and HIV combined). Current water testing equipment is bulky, expensive and takes at least a day to give results. Alex and his team tried to work out how they might improve the process and after about a month of trying to solve the problem, they co-founded WaterScope.

What problem is your technology solution trying to solve? 

Alex: Access to information that will give people better drinking water sources. It’s trying to solve both inequality and in particular, bacterial contamination. At the moment, if you were to go into Tanzania, and there was a public tap, there’s just no way of knowing whether the water is safe to drink. The community is quite removed from the testing facility that comes in. So, what we’re trying to do is make a test that anyone can understand whether the water has got bacterial contamination. Currently the systems are very complicated. The WaterScope system aims to be empowering for the community. It allows the community to put mechanisms in place, to clean the water locally and get sustainable change at a local level.

Can you explain how the solution works?

Alex: At the moment, there’s two parts to the solution. First is the technology, which enables simple, portable bacterial testing, and then once you have the data and once you have the technology, and it’s being used, the second challenge is how then do you convert that to have impact back on the lives of people on the ground?

A person in the village would collect water from the source and they would filter it through our reusable cartridge. The cartridge has a disposable element to it which allows it to maintain the integrity of the test. The purpose of the cartridge is to take the lab into the field. It condenses the [testing] process into a small cartridge. Once they have the filtered sample, they put it into WaterScope’s imaging system, and they incubate it for up to 18 hours. Then, they take it out and capture an image, and at Waterscope we use machine learning to identify the bacteria. The importance of this method is that whoever is collecting the sample doesn’t have to be trained in microbiology.

After the results are captured, they are sent in real time to our database, which will then allow mapping and then intervention from potential governance. It allows for real time intervention. It also gives locals the agency to purify and periodically clean their water supply.

What inspired you to develop this solution? 

Alex: It just fell together. I was doing my PhD in genetics at Cambridge, and I found myself getting far removed from the impact I wanted to have. I was actively participating in outreach projects and bumped into three people who had similar inclinations. We found more scope based on some research that was being done in Physics, and we thought, maybe we can have an impact. I didn’t expect it to become my full-time job. We got a bit of funding from the university and from the humanitarian innovation fund, and we managed to get a pilot done. Having looked at the scale of the problem, it just felt right to do what we’re doing full time.

How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?

Alex: We’ve got prototypes that we’ve tested in the field. Now Waterscope is looking to convert these prototypes to post-production prototypes for manufacturing and understanding how we keep the costs down. We also want to keep those distribution channels open allowing us to get it to people who need it. The other side is firm up the software, improving machine learning, improve the way we use cloud technology, and flesh out more of the community impact side of things. We’re aiming to commercialise by the end of 2022.

Waterscope is looking to use the funding to match fund an implementation project where we’ll work with ten potential communities to understand how we can have an impact on the key community stakeholders.

How has the global pandemic impacted your work? 

Alex: Quite significantly. We had a project funded by the United Kingdom government last year in which we were going to fly to Tanzania to train and collaborate field partners on the system, run workshops with community members, and the pandemic hit. So, we had to think around how to still get that field data and community data form the system without leaving the UK. We ended up reaching out to more people and spent a lot of time building a solid relationship over video conferencing. The benefit being now we have great partners on the ground, they’re very familiar with our system and that probably wouldn’t have happened before. We would have normally done an intensive week or two in the field and left again, so the pandemic changed our approach to trials. We now have that longevity with our partners. It’s also far more inclusive than it would have been, it doesn’t beat the face-to-face meeting and seeing someone use our technology. We’ve done a lot and we’re better for it, so we’re thankful for that.

Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?

Alex: You get moments where my peers are out in London as consultants, earning a lot of money, and they enjoy that. I haven’t really thought about it too much. I find my days really fulfilling, I work with great people and I’m so fortunate that we now have our own company. It’s liberating. I find it hard imagining what it would be like to work for another company now because I’m so used to working with the WaterScope team. Funding is a constant battle, though.

My family has been supportive of this. My dad’s a builder and my mum’s a renovator. They’ve always worked for themselves, since I was young. I grew up on a farm in Wales and I’m the first person to go to university in my family. I think my mum sent the Cisco challenge voting to all her friends. It’s also something they can all get behind. When I was in the nitty gritty of research, conversations around dinner might be on cells and protein. It really wasn’t gripping. Now, it’s very easy to communicate the importance of what we’re doing, and people are naturally invested.

What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs? 

Alex: Get a good partner. A partner you can rely on. Get an advocate on your technology in assessing where it’s used. Fundraising is hard. You’ll need resilience because you will apply for a lot of grants and funding streams, you’ll only get about 10 percent of them. You need to be able to handle rejection and failure. You’ve also got to build your network as strong as possible. Working in things like incubators certainly helps. We got into a fellowship here and there, that put us in contact with like-minded people, it was really helpful because my previous contacts were all academics. Get an advisory board, they will help you get other people involved. Try not to say ‘no’ to any opportunity that comes along. I give a couple of lectures in university and talks at events; you always meet new people. As long as you’re open to those opportunities, it will come. Get involved with some universities, their networks are vast.

Stay tuned for more articles in our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winning team!

Previously published in the 3BL Media newsroom.

Image credit: mrjn Photography/Unsplash

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