Student startup wants to bring clean water to those who need it most

Thursday, August 16, 2018

According to the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water. Without safe drinking water, people are at risk of contracting water-borne diseases, which are responsible for more than 3.4 million deaths each year.

Three University of Waterloo Engineering students from the Conrad Master of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology program decided to tackle this global problem head-on and develop a social venture with a mission to make safe drinking water accessible for people in developing communities, by providing effective, simple, and low-cost point-of-use water treatment to those who need it most.  

Kevin Dang, Ashely Keefer, Vishal Vinodkumar

Kevin Dang, Ashley Keefner, Vishal Vinodkumar at the Hult Prize Competition.

“Our initial design used titanium dioxide to coat beads, which when added to water and left in the sun, would react with the UV light to destroy contaminants,” said Ashley Keefner, co-founder of CataLight. “What made our design different was that we were developing a way to immobilize titanium dioxide onto larger substrates while maintaining adequate efficiency.”

CataLight first competed in the Hult Prize competition – the world’s biggest engine for the launch of for-good, for-profit startups emerging from universities – where they made it to the finals at the Regional competition in Melbourne, Australia and placed within the top 100 out of 100,000 applicants internationally. Motivated by the other entrepreneurial students they met at the competition, the team left Melbourne determined to continue working on their startup. It wasn’t long after they got home that they were competing in the World’s Challenge Challenge (WCC), placing second internationally.   

“The World’s Challenge Challenge is an international competition that challenges students to find innovative and entrepreneurial solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations,” said Kevin Dang, co-founder of CataLight. “Access to safe drinking water is essential to achieving these goals and we knew our point-of-use water treatment unit could have a major impact on the lives of those most in need.”


Ashley Keefner and Vishal Vinodkumar in Haiti.

Earlier this year, the team travelled to Haiti to learn more about the challenges of accessing safe drinking water in developing communities. They partnered with Canadian Charity Live Different and visited a small mountainside community just outside of Cap-Haïtien.

“We spent time in the community, talking to locals and making the trip to go collect water for a family,” said Vishal Vinod , co-founder of CataLight. “As we continued with our research and learned more about the problem and the needs of our users, we decided to pivot away from this initial design and toward a new technology.”

CataLight’s hope is that their technology will provide developing communities with a simple, durable, personal water-treatment solution that will help to alleviate the problems around accessing clean water. Inspired from their trip, the team decided to pursue CataLight full-time, and have even secured a place in Waterloo’s Velocity Garage.

Ashley Keefner, Kevin Dang and Vishal Vinodkumar

CataLight pitching at the World's Challenge Challenge Competition.

Currently, CataLight is in the lab evolving their idea and developing new technology that will help them build a better product for those who need it.

“Ultimately our goal is to increase access to safe drinking water," said Keefner. "To do this, developing a solution that best suits the needs of our users is paramount. Once ready, we will return to Haiti, where we will run our first pilot.”

Follow CataLight’s journey on Instagram!