The Seattle startup makes the “Smart Solar Purifier,” a plastic hydration bag with a device that measures absorption of the sun’s rays, which kill bacteria and other hazards in the water.

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The company: PotaVida, a Seattle startup that harnesses sunlight to disinfect water for use in disaster relief or refugee crises.


UW roots: CEO and co-founder Charlie Matlack, while earning a doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Washington, designed and won an award in 2011 for a reusable water pouch that used sunlight to disinfect water.


The device: PotaVida’s product, the “Smart Solar Purifier,” is a 10-liter plastic hydration bag with a device that measures absorption of the sun’s rays. On a sunny day, ultraviolet rays will kill any bacteria and other hazards in the water in about five hours. When the water is safe, a light on the bag turns green.


Shelf life: The devices are designed to last for a year of use, or a shelf life of five years. List prices vary by order size. Including data collection analysis tools, they range from about $50 to $100 a unit, Matlack said.


Early deployments: PotaVida, through relief organization World Concern, deployed about 750 devices to Haiti beginning in May. Another trial is set to bring 400 devices to Somalia this year. Matlack and co-founder Tyler Davis are scheduled to meet with prospective customer-aid organizations in Kenya this week and travel to Somalia the next.


Inefficient aid: Ease of use and sensors to record correct usage are integral to PotaVida’s offering, Matlack says. Most water-purification devices distributed in disaster relief “have terrible, low usage rates,” he said. “Five percent [correct usage] is pretty typical for something like chlorine tablets.”


Data focus: Each smart purifier stores data on how it is being used, which can be collected by a field worker with a smartphone-connected data reader. In Haiti, Matlack says, signals tracking the data collection at one point indicated a road to one purifier site had washed out, and, later, that a data collector’s motorcycle had broken down.


Big Philanthropy: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others have preached a data-focused approach to improving the effectiveness of their work. Matlack thinks the future of PotaVida might be in building a platform to collect and analyze such data.


Funding:Equity fundraising has raised $275,000 of what PotaVida hopes will be a $750,000 round. That follows a $470,000 angel investment round, and a $150,000 grant from the Washington Global Health Alliance for a round of testing the devices with World Concern.

— Matt Day