When we think of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, we picture nerdy, hoodie-wearing, 20-something coders building the next Facebook, Snapchat or Pied Piper, raising massive rounds of money from VCs.
The furthest thing from our minds in this context is plain old water. That’s for non-profits to distribute, Nestle to bottle, the Bonos and Gwyneth Paltrows of the world to discuss and for all of us to drink. Yawn.
But water tech isn’t just a “thing”; it’s a huge deal. According to a 2013 study on water tech in the U.S. the total US water market in 2010 was estimated to be $107 billion, growing with an annual rate of 10-14.9%.
Market size clearly matters, but the global impact of solutions to reduce our use of plastics in water bottles is even much greater. For a bit of context, according to recent news reports, the energy we waste using bottled water would be enough to power 190,000 homes. Furthermore, Americans used about 50 billion plastic bottles last year. Lastly, making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually – enough to fuel 1.3 millions cars for a year.
By any objective standards, this is a massive problem crying out for a real solution. While a recent accidental discovery of a plastic-eating enzyme raises hope for reducing plastic waste volume, especially in oceans and landfills, many commercially available solutions exist to reduce plastic use, starting with the most obvious — reusable bottles. There are the Nalgene, Soma, Kleen Kanteen and many others, which mostly retail for $20 or above. And you don’t even get actual water inside at the register.
Essentially ever reusable bottle brand professes environmental awareness or a mission-driven approach, but few, if any, actually walk the walk. Hiring celebrities to pitch bottled water doesn’t exactly count.
One notable exception is Gulshan Kumar, Director of Marketing of PATHWater. An immigrant whose family moved directly to Silicon Valley, he learned from an early age both the game-changing impact of breakthrough tech, as well as its frequent failure to deliver beyond the hype on a larger social mission.
Determined to do things differently, in addition to starting PATHWater, Gulshan and his co-founder, Shadi Bakour have spent a great deal of his time educating youth about the massive environmental impact of plastics, especially discarded water bottles. To date, he and co-founder Shadi Bakour have reached 4,000 students in over 50 school districts and 100 school sites, with many more to come.
Of course, having a social cause isn’t unique to PATHWater. The water tech landscape is littered with companies promising to donate to a cause from each bottle’s proceeds (Ethos Water, sold at Starbucks), to manufacture responsibly, set up refill stations, support forests, children and 1% for the Planet.
The brand of reusable water bottle you choose can even be a fashion statement. With the market set to explode to $10.8B in 2018, the lifestyle and fashion play for fancy water bottles means prices vary up to as much as $98 per bottle or more. And that doesn’t even include the actual water.
While this may make sense for Silicon Valley and Hollywood types, the vast majority of consumers will never spend more than a few bucks for a reusable, most of them never thinking twice about drinking and throwing away, at once.
Gulshan and Shadi are purposely aiming for mass-market adoption, not the luxury lifestyle segment. Twenty-somethings themselves, their very mission of educating young people while reducing waste is baked into the price and positioning.
Instead of selling another bulky plastic bottle to attach to your backpack and fill after buying, they instead offer a pre-filled, reusable aluminum bottle the same size and roughly the same cost as the usual 16.9 fluid ounces. And you can enjoy the actual water right away.
Hawking water or bottles to contain it, especially to the mass market, can seem like a thankless task, especially to a generation used to having sophisticated technology running everything. But Gulshan, the Silicon Valley native, is a man on a mission. He says, “being from the Silicon Valley, we usually hear about the next big tech start up. But innovation doesn’t only happen in tech, and we’re proving that by changing an industry that’s been the same for the past 30 years.”
In a world saturated with high tech in everything from smartphones to connected homes, it’s sometimes the low-tech, most basic elements of daily life like how we carry water and recycle bottles that have the greatest overall impact on sustainable business practices and a cleaner planet.