Alfredo Zolezzi, of Advanced Innovation Center in Chile, had spent the early part of his career creating products for the oil industry. He had achieved great success as an entrepreneur by developing technology that enhanced the recovery of oil from abandoned oil wells using high-frequency, high-powered ultrasound waves. He had ideas for new technologies that could reduce the cost of refining heavy oil as well as its viscosity and sulfur content. Zolezzi likely could have made billions by perfecting these.
But then, in 2009, he read that the United Nations was discussing a resolution to make access to clean drinking water a basic human right—just like the right to food and freedom. When Zolezzi started researching the issue, he learned that 884 million people were without access to safe drinking water and that 1.5 million children under five years old die each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases. Waterborne viruses are the leading cause of disease and death around the world—taking an annual toll of more than 3.4 million lives.
He realized he had lived a privileged life. He came from a middle-class family, had had a good education, and was able to achieve great personal success by using technology to solve the problems of big corporations. Zolezzi says that he realized that he needed to use these gifts to do something for those who have nothing.Zolezzi was even more shocked to learn that the suffering weren’t just in sub-Saharan Africa. A slum that he visited near his home in Santiago, Chile, had the same problem. Its inhabitants fell sick frequently and spent a substantial part of their earnings on emergency hospital care.
So he decided to shift gear and develop a technology to help solve the problem of water purification. He started repurposing his oil-extraction technology to eliminate microbial contaminants from water.
Zolezzi told me he was driven by a social need. But he also believed that he could build a profitable company and achieve entrepreneurial success.
Zolezzi and his team spent 18 months developing a system that converts water into a plasma state through a high-intensity electrical field and eliminates microbiological content through electroporation, oxidation, ionization, UV and IR radiation and shockwaves.
They installed it in the Santiago slum in mid-2011. Watch what they’re doing below.
I heard about Zolezzi’s project when I visited Chile in April 2012 as an advisor on innovation to the Chilean government. When I visited, Rosa Reyes, community leader of the Fundo San Jose shantytown, told me how grateful she was to Zolezzi and his team for transforming their lives. Their productivity had increased. Her neighbors no longer had to keep borrowing money from each other to pay for medical care. Reyes said that the local hospital, fearing that it was losing business to a competitor, had sent a representative to ask why they had stopped frequenting their facility.
This technology was recently tested for conformance to EPA guidelines by the leading U.S. authority, NSF International. According to e-mails and test results that Zolezzi shared with me, it not only exceeded NSF’s highest standards, but killed 100% of all bacteria and viruses in the heavily tainted samples that NSF tested.
Village-sized units of the plasma-based water-sanitization technology—that consume less energy than a hairdryer—should cost around $500 when mass produced. A technology developed by a small team in Chile could go a long way toward solving one of humanity’s greatest problems.
It could also be highly profitable.
This technology has applications for homes all over the world as well as in hospitals, airplanes, and practically everywhere else where water is consumed. Americans spend $12 billion every year on bottled water because they don’t trust the water from their taps. This expensive water sometimes has a higher bacterial content than tap water. Consumers would readily buy add-ons to their water filters that provided them with 100% bacteria- and virus-free water. This could easily be a billion-dollar business.
Doing social good and building world-changing and profitable businesses are indeed not incompatible. This may be the best way for entrepreneurs to achieve their peace and happiness in a world full of contrasts.