Last year, a group of five young U.S. entrepreneurs landed in Santiago with a bright idea for a new solar toilet model, and US$40,000 in their pockets.
The team arrived as part of the lauded Chilean incubator program Start-Up Chile, launched in 2010 by the Chilean Economic Development Fund (Corfo), which awards US$40,000 to entrepreneurs from around the world to spend six months in the country while developing their start-up companies.
“The Start-Up Chile program was phenomenal. Smart and driven people from all over the world are meeting in Santiago to start a company,” said Sanivation engineer Andrew Foote, a recent graduate of the lauded Chilean incubator program, in an interview with The Santiago Times.
“The energy, enthusiasm, diversity and cultural exchange makes me wish I could stay longer and continue to meet all the amazing people that are coming to start companies in Santiago.”
Foote arrived with his fellow entrepreneurs and former classmates to launch Sanivation, a revolutionary sanitation project that revolves around a solar toilet designed by the company’s three engineers from Georgia Tech: Chris Quintero, Emily Woods and Foote.
“The difference with our design (and existing solar toilet models) is we focus on the complete inactivation of pathogens to prevent the transmission of disease,” explained Foote.
Sanivation’s model intensifies the sun’s rays, heating up raw sewage to a sufficient temperature to kill disease-causing pathogens. Once pathogens are eliminated, the human waste is transformed into nutrient-rich soil that can be used as fertilizer.
The Sanivation project reflects the diversity of start-ups arriving in Chile thanks to the seed fund, ranging from online commerce and social networking sites to socially-oriented, for-profit companies like Sanivation, whose stated mission is “to decrease morbidity and mortality of communities from poor sanitation by providing a desirable sanitation service: toilet provision, cleaning, waste collection, and treatment, to people earning less than US$2 a day.”
A Chilean connection
After six months developing their business plan and design features in Chile, Sanivation decided to extend their stay. “Chile was a great place to develop and test our technology,” Foote said.
The engineers worked closely with laboratories at the Veterinary School at the Universidad de Chile and the Fundación Ciencia Para Vida (Science for Life Foundation). “(The laboratories) helped us immensely in demonstrating that we were inactivating all the pathogens that cause people to get sick.”
Sanivation also opted to work with local engineers to finalize the design of their solar toilet. One engineer in particular at local NGO El Canelo de Nos, Oscar Nuñez, already had 20 years of experience installing solar toilets – which proved to be an invaluable resource for the team, says Foote.
“Canelo de Nos provided a lot of ideas on how to improve the design, and added insight from previous toilet installations. The effort was truly a joint one between Canelo de Nos and Sanivation.”
After months of designing, testing and evaluating the solar technology, Sanivation sold the solar toilet to Chile’s largest NGO, Un Techo Para Chile (A Roof for Chile), which works on improving the living conditions in some of the country’s poorest sectors, known as campamentos.
“Un Techo Para Chile liked our innovative design and wanted to try it… we had multiple meetings with Techo staff, went to many different campamentos and even had design meetings about how to make a better toilet that meets the needs of people in campamentos.”
Launching the project on an international scale
“Due to the good work of many people before us, Chile as a country has a pretty high provision of sanitation and not many people are dying from diseases caused by poor sanitation.
“In other countries, up to 100,000 people a year are dying due to poor sanitation. That’s almost 300 a day. This should not be the case and we really want to help improve the lives of these people,” Foote said.
The team is currently reaching out to new sources of capital and international organizations for on-the-ground support in the developing world. And the project is a finalist in the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, a competition that offers training and cash prizes to young social innovators.
“We saw the Dell Challenge as a way to raise awareness about the sanitation crisis,” Foote said. “We are excited to share all the progress we have made down here in Chile, and maybe even win some money.”
You can vote for the Sanivation project at the Dell Social Innovation Challenge People’s Choice Award here, before May 13.
By Jacqueline Seitz