Thursday, December 2, 2010

Is that a Robotic Elephant from the Future to Save Mankind? Or is that a Filter Qualification System?


What’s up Driptech friends! Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. My name is Frank, and this is my post to give you an inside look at the eventful life of a Social Venture Fellow. Everyone at Driptech comes from different backgrounds with distinct skills. Together, we form a powerful fist that punches poverty in the face. Our mission is to empower farmers in developing countries by producing affordable micro-irrigation systems. Before Driptech, I worked for a consumer products company, first as an engineer and then as a marketer, on brands like Bounty and Prilosec OTC. In September, I joined Driptech as a Social Venture Fellow. Today, I want to share my experiences in one of my first projects.

The Driptech irrigation system is tailored to the unique needs of small-plot farmers in India and China. We make our system modular, so the farmers can either size up or down, depending on their plot space. Since our farmers are very price sensitive, when we design each system component, our team has to maintain a delicate balance between cost and performance. One of my first projects was to qualify our selection of cost-effective irrigation filters.

The nature of this project reflects the entrepreneurial culture at Driptech. I had to put my engineering skills to work and qualify selected filters by simulating actual field conditions. To irrigate up to one acre of land, I estimated that 300 gallons per minute (GPM) of water flow is required. The problem was, well, 300 GPM is a LOT of water! How could I move so much water at one time to qualify these filters? Luckily, our engineering team consists of some of the smartest out-of-the-box thinkers I have ever met. These guys really understand how to solve a problem with the limited resources of a start-up. We bounced several ideas off of each other. One of the coolest ideas was to rent a fire hydrant from the city of Mountain View. Our garden faucet produces about 10 GPM of water. A fire hydrant produces about 50X that flow rate. I was excited about this idea. I mean, when is the next time I will get to play with a fire hydrant?

Unfortunately, the moon and stars did not align for me on the fire hydrant idea. The upfront cost to rent from the city was too high. However, I did end up building a filter validation system with a 6.5 horsepower gas pump, a 600-gallon inflatable swimming pool, and some plumber-grade piping.

The day of our first run was about 20 degrees too cold. Our office park neighbors looked curiously at our 600-gallon swimming pool sitting in the back parking lot. After 1.5 hour of setting the system up, we were finally doing some major filter qualifications! As Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Well, maybe our first run wasn’t that dramatic, but the filter qualification system did blow up a few times under high water pressure. Unfortunately, the explosions were not captured on video, but here is footage when the system was working properly:

video

One of our original intents was to qualify plastic filters that could complement the much more expensive metal filters. After some fine tuning of the filter qualification system, we found two plastic filters that could accommodate water flow rates for farmers with less than 0.5 acre of land and farmers with up to 1.0 acre of land. Victory.

Lesson Points from the Education of a Driptech Social Venture Fellow:

  • Thinking really outside-the-box gets your brain to churn out options that you may not think you would have…especially cool ones like the fire hydrant idea.
  • However, connecting the dots is just as important…all big ideas are nothing without practical execution and understanding of the resources at your disposal.

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