change:WATER Labs' iThrone: a waste-shrinking drop-in toilet
iThrone is a waste-shrinking toilet to convert sewage into pure water vapor to clean up urban slums with no power or plumbing infrastructure
Pitch us on your solution
Globally, 2.6Bn people (including 85MM Bangladeshis) lack safe sanitation, largely because they live in places with no sewage plumbing. Where people can’t flush, things get messy fast and removing sewage is very costly. change:WATER Labs is developing an alternative to flushing waste: we EVAPORATE it! Our “iThrone” is a portable, space-saving, waste-shrinking toilet that eliminates 90-95% of daily waste onsite, for communities without power or plumbing. Using a breathable membrane to soak up and evaporate (or “flush away”) the liquid content of daily waste, not only does the iThrone NOT consume or pollute water, but it actually converts waste INTO clean water (vapor). By eliminating unflushed waste, the iThrone helps clean up communities. The iThrone is an ideal drop-in solution to provide immediately safe sanitation at low-cost to more people—in slums and informal/transitional communities. By shrinking sewage, the iThrone drastically cuts waste management/collection costs while increasing toilet-access and servicing efficiency.
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What is the problem you are solving?
Globally, 2.6BN people lack access to safe, clean toilets, largely because they live in homes with no sewage plumbing. When people don’t have safe, private toilets in or near home, many practice open defecation. Poor sanitation perpetuates poor health, poverty and pollution. It causes 80% of all infectious disease, 4% of all deaths, 5.5Bn days/yr in lost productivity (translating to $260Bn/yr in economic losses). Lack of conveniently-accessible, private toilets in or near home exposes women & girls to daily risk of sexual assault and violence. When flushing isn’t an option, getting rid of sewage becomes very messy and hugely costly. But, current options to deal with human waste in cities—flushing or frequent sewage collection—aren’t scalable or sustainable, and are bad for the planet, consuming excessive water and/or fuel; and not getting rid of it pollutes communities, poisons their environments and local water resources, and contributes to climate change (4% of man-made methane emissions). Even rich countries like Dubai & the US face such challenges, with >20% living in areas with failing or no sewerage infrastructure. Clearly, we need a new way to “flush”—a clean, low-cost, low-carbon, sustainable solution that requires no pipes, power or plumbing.
Who are you serving?
Our solution targets the growing need for safe, clean, low-cost, drop-in sanitation in un-sewered areas, targeting end-users living in under-resourced and informal communities--urban slums, informal communities, emergencies, transitional situations. We have developed a solution that is compact, can be installed anywhere without needing hookups to infrastructure, is easy to use, and drastically reduces servicing and maintenance costs and frequencies.
Our solution benefits every actor along the sanitation value chain: end-users, WASH advocates, local servicers, local governments, NGOs, construction contractors, health officials, etc.
For end-users, our solution makes safe, clean toilets more immediately and conveniently accessible.
For servicers, our solution greatly reduces waste-collection costs and frequencies while also increasing their ability to scale their servicing coverage.
For governments and NGOs, our toilets provide an immediately-effective, safe, clean, low-cost drop-in solution.
For construction-contractors, our solution solves the issue of installing toilets where no supporting infrastructure pre-exists.
This fall, we will conduct our first pilot deployment in a low-resource urban area in Uganda (which also hosts a significant refugee population), to provide improved sanitation at the district school and hospital. We are working with the local District government, local fecal-sludge management (FSM) servicer, WASH-advocacy group, the hospital and school administrators, and multinational donors.
What is your solution?
To address relentless, rapid accumulation of sewage-waste in un-sewered areas, and to offer a more sustainable (waterless, non-polluting) approach to sanitation, change:WATER is developing a quick, clean, low-cost way to get rid of it when flushing isn’t an option—we SHRINK it! The “iThrone”, a portable, non-flush toilet that evaporates the liquid content of daily sewage-waste onsite, essentially “flushing away” 90-95% of it as pure water vapor, thus extending safe, clean sanitation into homes and communities with no power or plumbing. Our no-flush evaporative toilet leverages two breakthrough technologies:
--a low-cost evaporative membrane (essentially, a “shrink-wrap for crap”) that aggressively dehydrates human-waste without need for external power or heat (demo: http://bit.ly/cwldemosplit);
--a “pee-powered” bio-battery that converts urine into electricity, to power ventilation in the toilet to dispel gasses and odors.
The iThrone collects sewage-waste in evaporative pouches made of our membrane. These pouches dehydrate both liquid and solid waste daily, such that only a few grams of dried solids remain inside, hygienically contained. These pouches are designed to process a household’s-worth of waste every day for a full month. Unlike most container-based toilets (which fill up fast and need to be emptied every 1-2 days), the iThrone only needs to be emptied 1-2x/month. After a month, used pouches would be swapped for clean pouches. Collected waste would then be processed at existing centralized facilities or converted to value (bioenergy, biofertilizer, etc). Not only does the iThrone NOT consume or pollute water, it actually reclaims pure water from waste. Not only does the iThrone NOT consume external energy, it generates its own energy. And, by rapidly dehydrating waste, the iThrone cuts off methane that normally off-gasses from wet raw sewage. Our toilet is compact, simple to use, keeps things clean, reduces odor and, with no need for external power or plumbing hookups, can install anywhere—uniquely suited to address the growing need for drop-in sanitation in crowded slums, camps, informal communities and crisis situations. By shrinking sewage, the iThrone cuts costs while increasing toilet access and servicing efficiency. The cost to install and service one communal toilet could instead fund FOUR of our household toilets. For waste collectors, our solution reduces collection costs (by >50%) and frequencies (by 15-30x). Instead of repeatedly servicing a small number of container toilets daily, they could service 20x more of our iThrones monthly—allowing these businesses to be much more scalable and profitable, paving the way to more sustainable, scalable sanitation in the future.
Select only the most relevant.
Where our solution team is headquartered or located:Cambridge, MA, USA
In which sector would you categorize your solution?
Our solution's stage of development:Pilot
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
No other sanitation solution can achieve rapid, clean, low-cost onsite waste-elimination without flushing. The iThrone is the only non-flush/container-based toilet that leverages evaporation (plus waste-to-energy conversion) to eliminate daily onsite waste. Our technology is hugely disruptive, enabling safe, clean, easily-deployable sanitation anywhere—increasing access while reducing costs. CONTAINER-BASED toilets fill up fast and require frequent, costly waste removal. COMPOSTING TOILETS are very slow to convert waste, hard to maintain and often can spread disease—not suitable for in- home use. “Re-INVENTED TOILETS” use complex technologies to rapidly process onsite waste, but are too expensive to be scalable. SEWAGE COLLECTION SERVICERS (so-called “fecal sludge management” or “FSM” servicers) would in fact be our partners and customers, as they focus on service delivery and we could provide more cost-effective, lower-maintenance toilet hardware. Our toilet would enable their waste collection operations to be MUCH more profitable and scalable. Our toilet keeps things clean, reduces odor and can install anywhere--ideal for domestic sanitation in crowded & informal/transitional communities. It’s the only toilet that can drop into an emergency to provide immediately safe sanitation. The iThrone will get safe sanitation to more people—in slums, refugee camps and crisis situations. By shrinking sewage, the iThrone cuts costs (in half) while increasing toilet access and servicing efficiency. The cost to install and maintain one communal toilet could instead fund FOUR of our household toilets. For waste collectors, instead of repeatedly servicing a small number of container toilets daily, they could service up to 20x more of our iThrones 1-2x/month.
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
TOC: Our iThrone increases sanitation access by doing two things:
--increasing toilet availability (deployability, accessibility, cost);
--transforming sanitation-servicing economics to enable greater servicing-efficiency and scalability).
AVAILABILITY: The iThrone is low-cost, stand-alone, drop-in installable/deployable-anywhere, and space-saving, thereby decoupling sanitation-access from power or plumbing infrastructure.
TRANSFORMING SANITATION ECONOMICS: The iThrone is 1/4 the cost of comparable sanitation options. Reducing servicing frequencies 15-30x (from daily to 1-2x monthly) cuts sewage collection costs in half and allows collection fleets to service up to 20x more toilets.
With more people living in places with insufficient or ageing sewage-plumbing, sanitation is increasingly going “off-line”. Communities end up living WITH their sewage or sewage-removal becomes like garbage-removal—collected instead of flushed. The only way to increase toilet accessibility is to develop a compact, stand-alone/drop-in toilet that eliminates waste fast at the point-of-production and keeps it cleanly contained. The only way reduce collection costs is to reduce collection frequency—for sewage waste, the best solution is to shrink the volume on a daily basis (while also combatting odor). Our fast, off-grid, waste-dehydrating, self-ventilating solution is the ONLY solution the meets all these requirements. Also, the iThrone enables sanitation providers to deliver better sanitation to more users at lower cost. For collectors, our toilet reduces the high collection costs and frequencies needed for other container-based toilets. Reduced servicing (1-2x/mo vs every 1-2 days), the iThrone cuts OPEX costs by 50% and allows servicers to cover 3-20x more toilets (yielding 3-20x revenues). So, our toilets render these businesses more profitable and scalable.
Select the key characteristics of the population in Bangladesh your solution serves.
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
With our Uganda field pilot, we will deploy 5-6 toilets to the Kiboga District Hospital and school—providing improved sanitation to ~500-1000 people (whose best alternative currently are unsanitary pit latrines). In 1yr, we expect to have 10-15 toilets deployed for our beta-trial, providing improved sanitation to 1000-3000 people. Soon thereafter, we will launch the the market, and fulfill our LOI first orders for 6000-units, improving the lives of 0.6MM urban people. In 5yrs, we expect to have 150K toilets deployed, improving sanitation access and health conditions for 7.5MM people in urban areas. In terms of direct impacts, our toilets allow safe, clean sanitation to be much for widely and conveniently accessible in un-sewered urban areas at lower cost, and it also enables sewage-removal servicing to be much more scalable and sustainable (lower-cost and higher servicing efficiency). From the perspective of urban health, safety and environment, our innovation allows:
--women and girls to potentially have closer access to safe, clean, private toilets, thereby reducing their daily risks of sanitation-related sexual assault;
--reduced sewage-waste discharge into the local environment and water resources (which helps clean up communities and reduce diarrheal disease);
--reduced exposure for people in a 0.25-0.5km radius to vector-borne disease (potentially 500-1000 people in an urban setting).
Environmentally, one iThrone could conserve ~20K-130K gal/household/yr of water versus flush-toilets. By shrinking sewage, we could conserve 9-45 MM gal gasoline/toilet/year from reduced collection/haulage. One iThrone could avoid 5-10Tg/household/yr of methane emissions from raw sewage (equivalent to driving 1500-3000mi/yr).
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
We will be launched to market by early 2021 and expect to have sold/deployed 12K toilets (including 6-8K units for which we already have LOIs from 3 contractors, including one that wants to deploy our toilets to Rohingya communities in Bangladesh)—generating $4-7MM in revenue (from hardware + consumable sales) and improving the lives of up to 0.6MM people. We will likely be selling to construction contractors working with government, sanitation service providers, NGOs and equipment manufacturers. We will still be developing our marketing & distribution channels, but given the pent-up demand we’ve seen for our product & the aggressive procurement by the Chinese & India governments of >100MM portable toilets, we expect to be able to be actively growing our sales & achieve profitability in 2022 (having sold 50K-60K units, generating $15MM revenues & $9MM profits). We expect to sell 150K of our toilets by 2024, capturing cumulative revenues of $65MM, and improving the lives of 7.5MM people. In addition to selling our first toilet product, we will be likely working with some of our early adopters to improve our product, the servicing model, & exploring options to improve our materials & convert the collected waste from our toilets to monetizable value.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
Our biggest challenges in the next year involve:
- Raising sufficient funding to scale our operations and ready ourselves for market launch—especially given that we are taking a risk to develop novel technology hardware for low-income markets (most investors don’t want to combine technology risk with market risk);
- Tackling the cultural sensitivities in many of our target markets around sanitation in order to render a product that end-users would want to use
In the next 5yrs, we will be challenged:
- To grow our sales and marketing efforts (given that it is global and fragmented);
- To evolve our product away from dependence on local servicing partners (not unique to our venture, but still, a challenge, since servicing is not always established in many markets, and where it is, it is very localized and variable);
- To improve our materials to be more sustainable.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
Fundraising: We are exploring some innovative partnership to help generate earlier revenues—sponsored deployments, strategic investments, integration WASH consulting services. Also, as we begin to generate data from our field trial and demonstrate the potential of our innovation, we should be able to advance our discussions with investors.
Cultural fit: We do our best to engage a host of local stakeholders to educate us on how to best address these issues. As we spend more time on the ground, our ability to address cultural sensitivities will hopefully improve. Also, working with trusted local partners helps us get up the learning curve quickly!
Sales & Marketing: We are talking to large corporations who can serve as potential distributors of our solution (construction contractors, equipment and hardware distributors, etc). However, we will need to build out a dedicated marketing team internally.
Product independence: Eventually, we will upgrade our toilets to be serviceable by the users themselves. This will require advancements to ensure that the toilets quickly neutralize the waste onsite. (Also, recent developments show potential for our pee-battery technology to become a stand-alone product that we could sell to other sanitation providers as an low-cost onsite waste-treatment solution that converts urine into clarified clean water and electricity).
Materials innovation: Right now the focus is to get our first product out to people who need safe sanitation now, but we are already looking at more sustainable materials to replace our current materials. We are working with our expert supply-chain partners to identify candidate materials.
If you selected “My solution is already being implemented in Bangladesh,” please provide an overview of your current activities in the region.
If you selected “I am planning to expand my solution to Bangladesh,” please provide an overview of your expansion plans. What is the market opportunity for your business or product in Bangladesh?
As mentioned above, the most immediate opportunity for us in Bangladesh is via an LOI from a contractor building shelters targeting Rohingya refugee communities. They are very interested in using our drop-in toilets in their shelters. We also are having discussions with the newly-appointed Turkish Ambassador to Bangladesh about bringing our sanitation technology to Bangladesh, in partnership with consortium called the SDG Impact Accelerator ("SDGia"--which includes the Turkish Foreign Ministry, UNDP, the Gates Foundation, WFP and FAO). Bangladesh would be a high priority country for us, given the large population (half of whom need improved sanitation), the large refugee population hosted there, and our connection to the SDGia partners who have a keen interest in improving sanitation in Bangladesh.
Select an option below:For-profit
If you selected Other for the organization question, please explain here.
How many people work on your solution team?
change:WATER Labs was founded in 2015 by Diana Yousef and Huda Elasaad. Currently, we have 6.5 FTEs and 4 PT volunteers, including:
--2 full-time founders (unpaid)
--4.5 full-time engineers (paid)
--1 volunteer PhD researcher (unpaid)
--3 part-time marketing consultants (unpaid)
Our diverse and expert group of Advisors, include:
Lisa Henthorne (International Desalination Association; CH2MHill); Mitch Tyson (serial cleantech entrepreneur/investor); Tom Tilas (AECOM); Jon Shepard (Ernst & Young, Toilet Board Coalition); James Casey (FLEXcon); Ling-Ling Phung (UNILEVER’s Sanitation for All initiative); Michael Murphy (MassCEC); Daniel Frey, PhD (Professor, MIT); Francis de los Reyes III (Professor, NC State).
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
6-years (eventually launching change:WATER Labs as a formal company in 2015).
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
Our team has been working on this vision since 2015, bringing together 50yrs of proven track record of successful technology innovation, commercialization and scale market deployment--leveraging complementary experiences from venture finance, business strategy, water-systems engineering, hardware and military equipment development, cleantech innovation and international development. Our breakthrough technologies evolve from NASA- & DOE-funded research efforts. Our founder/CEO, Dr. Diana Yousef, PhD, MBA, who initially conceived of evaporative sanitation, has 15+ yrs experience commercializing scientific/technology innovations for social impact. Previously, Diana was a serial cleantech & social entrepreneur, venture investor, McKinsey consultant, and international development innovator at UNDP & the WorldBank/IFC. She a former biochemist (BA, Harvard; PhD, Cornell), & holds an MBA & MA in International Development (Columbia). Huda Elasaad, MS, MS (CTO, co-Founder) brings 10+ yrs of expertise designing, engineering and deploying municipal-scale water- and sewage-treatment systems in MENA and South America, and years of applied academic training at MIT & U.Michigan. As a serial water-tech entrepreneur, she expertly leads our engineering team, product development efforts and manages key strategic partnerships. Kare Finstadsveen brings 30yrs expertise in designing and manufacturing military equipment & vehicles with the Norwegian Military. Our committed engineering team includes: Yongji Wang, MS (civil engineering); Yashik Gabbaladka (industrial engineering/fabrication); Hayley Walker (mechanical engineering); Andrew Ollerhead (chemical engineering); Ricci LaCentra (applied materials engineering); and Aman Sharma (electrical engineering). Our approach has been spotlighted by USAID Administrator Mark Green and Fast Company’s 2019 Listing of World Changing Ideas, and presented at the 2019 UN Climate Summit.
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
We have initial pilot funding from the Humanitarian Grand Challenges partners (USAID, DFID, Grand Challenges Canada, Dutch Government). Other partners include MIT D-Lab and our supply-chain partners. For our field pilot (in Kiboga District, Uganda), we will trial at the District Hospital and local school. Our NGO-partner, “Israeli Medicine on the Equator” (IME), which supports this Hospital and local health systems, is our key on-the-ground partner. They will host our toilets on the Hospital campus, and help to hire field-staff to manage day-to-day monitoring of our pilot. They have made introductions to key local stakeholders and decisionmakers in Kiboga. Another local WASH-focused NGO, Door-to-Door (D2D) will help facilitate workshops to educate users on the benefits of improved sanitation practices and use of our toilets. They will also help us to develop servicing protocols. cWL relies on IME and D2D to provide key usage/design specifications, installation locations, user/servicer training and monthly maintenance/waste-removal. We also are partnering with the Kiboga District Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and the local Department of Agriculture to explore potential to integrate waste-collection from our toilets and waste-to-fertilizer applications to generate revenues to support sanitation. We are also developing a partnership with the SDGia Partners for other geographies.
What is your business model?
Globally, markets for portable sanitation span both developing and developed economies. We will initially target 2 segments: the $73Bn/yr government/humanitarian-funded sanitation market; and the $50Bn/yr (est) market for sewage removal services (so-called “fecal sludge management”/FSM). Both segments participate in purchasing the $18.2Bn/yr in portable toilets. Initially, we will sell B2B to the BUSINESSES along the sanitation value-chain: (a) construction contractors; and (b) the sewage-removal (FSM) servicers. (Eventually, we hope to sell to governments/NGOs directly.) For governments, NGOs & their contractors, they currently have NO GOOD options to implement sanitation in areas where infrastructure doesn't exist; they need low-cost, low-maintenance, drop-in sanitation solutions. For servicers, they need to replace their container-based toilets with "smarter" toilets that reduce collection frequencies and costs, while also increasing their collection capacity (leveraging small fleets to cover more toilets) and thus revenues. Our B2B customers would serve as initial distribution channels, buying toilets in bulk to install, deploy and service them. To launch lean, we plan to outsource production of our toilet hardware, & possibly even license it to various regional/market channel partners. However, to maintain control over our key IP, as well as monitoring critical QA/QC standards, we will maintain in-house production of our evaporative membrane pouches, which will, over time, become our more significant revenue stream. We will sell hardware+consumables (toilets + recurring replacement pouches) to existing providers of sanitation services and infrastructure. Our razor/razor-blade revenue model means the growing install-base of our toilets will continue to generate recurring revenues from sales of replacements.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
Demand for off-grid/portable-toilets is strong and growing. Governments and humanitarian organizations spend $73Bn/yr on sanitation and deploy ~0.5MM toilets/yr for post-crisis sanitation. India and China are purchasing >100MM portable-toilets to upgrade their sanitation infrastructure. Sewage removal/management services is a potentially $50Bn/yr market—by 2030, 5Bn people will rely on decentralized forms of sanitation.
Our toilets would deliver significant benefits to every player along the sanitation value-chain:
--unprecedented accessibility for end-users;
--4x-reduced purchase/maintenance costs for funders/buyers (governments, NGOs, contractors);
--50%-reduced collection/OPEX costs and 20x-increased scalability (and profit-potential) for sewage-removal servicers.
For initial market-uptake, we will sell to BUSINESS-customers: construction contractors, sewage-removal servicers. Later, we will target direct-sales governments and large NGOs to achieve significant market-scale. Demonstrating pent-up demand, we already have in-bound LOIs from 3 construction-contractors for 6000+ toilets post-pilot. We’ve also received funding from the US, UK, and Dutch governments (giving us direct visibility with these 3 large government-buyers of portable sanitation solutions).
We will sell hardware+consumables (toilets+monthly replacement pouches). Given significant cost-savings and improved sanitation delivery conferred by our toilets, we will price them in line with comparables, and expect to capture sales-margins of $70-170/toilet, and recurring margins of $20-300/toilet/yr.
We’ve been incredibly lean, going from concept to prototype on investment of only $200K. We plan to launch to the market by 2021, selling 12K toilets. Given aggressive demand, we expect to be profitable and self-funding by Yr3 of sales, and to have sold 150K toilets by Yr4, generating revenues of $41MM and profits of $17MM.
Why are you applying to the Tiger Challenge?
We've been interested in Bangladesh for many years, and would welcome an opportunity to work there! In 2015, we were discussing the sanitation situation in Bangladesh with WSUP (a Gates-backed NGO focused on sanitation). We'd also explored an opportunity to address poor living conditions for textile workers in urban Bangladesh (especially women)--for whom sanitation-access is a widespread, difficult and dangerous challenge. About half of Bangladesh's large population lacks safe, accessible sanitation. In addition, one focus of our work is to develop drop-in sanitation for refugee populations, and we have an LOI from a contractor building shelters targeting the growing Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh. We've had initial conversations with other NGOs who are also interested in our solution to address the needs of the Rohingya refugees. As mentioned above, we also have a close connection to the newly-appointed Turkish Ambassador to Bangladesh, who had spearheaded an initiative called the SDG Impact Accelerator this past summer focused on sanitation startups--we were selected as the top Sanitation Innovator in this cohort, and at the Ambassador's invitation, were featured speakers at an event at the UN Climate Summit in Sept 2019. With his new appointment in Bangladesh, he has expressed interest in working with us to make our solution available in Bangladesh, along with support from the other SDGia partners (UNDP, Gates Foundation, FAO, WFP, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry). Finally, we were strongly urged to apply by a Tiger IT Foundation representative who saw our pitch at the MIT Solve Finals (Sept 2019).
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
If you selected Other, please explain here.
Government, NGOs and on-the-ground partners in Bangladesh.
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
This year, we need to raise significant funding to scale manufacturing, marketing & deployment of our product. We hope to leverage the TIGER IT Foundations ecosystem to find funders and investors aligned with our goals. We also need connections to governments & donors who procure & deploy sanitation systems at large scale. We hope to gain visibility with sewage collection (“fecal sludge management” or “FSM”) service providers, as these servicers could be potential customers and distributors. We would also like to work with local stakeholders and NGOs to facilitate sanitation enhancement programs or focus on public health initiatives in dense urban areas. Lastly, we would like to help and benefit from any partnerships from organizations that procure technology for humanitarian relief as part of government or NGO bids.
- Diana Yousef Founder and CEO, change:WATER Labs