Student innovator gets help from ASU, CGI U on clean water venture

Photo by: Nisarg Patel
Photo by: Nisarg Patel

Innovation Challenge, Edson and CGI U stepping stones for student startup

When Arizona State University senior Nisarg Patel's friend returned from a research expedition in Guatemala and expressed concern regarding children drinking contaminated water that could cause diarrhea and other waterborne illnesses, it got Patel thinking about a solution. He and his friends soon came up with the idea of soluble protein biosensors to indicate the presence of bacteria in drinking water.

The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1.5 million children under the age of five in developing countries die each year due to diarrhea.

“Most of the bacterial biosensors that are currently available are large, require electronics or are too complicated to operate in third-world countries,” says Patel, a molecular biosciences and biotechnology major from the School of Life Sciences. “Our concept of using protein biosensors that emit color when dropped in contaminated water provides a quick and inexpensive way to test for waterborne contamination in developing countries.”

Within six months, the HydroGene team developed a prototype and applied to the 2013 Innovation Challenge – ASU’s Changemaker Central’s social entrepreneurship competition – for the chance to be awarded funding that would help them refine their idea and scale it up further.

“Changemaker Central also encouraged all Innovation Challenge winners to apply to Clinton Global Initiative University’s 2013 meeting in St. Louis, and offered to pay for travel expenses for selected teams. We applied to CGI U, were selected and [were] flown to St. Louis to participate in the 2013 CGI U conference.”

Patel said attending the CGI U meeting was one of the most inspiring experiences the HydroGene team has had.

“Imagine being in the same room as some of the world’s smartest and influential people,” he said. “It was amazing to meet and exchange ideas with people who are working hard to develop solutions that will address global challenges related to poverty, education and health care.

“We had the opportunity to meet with Gary White, the founder of the nonprofit organization, that provides millions around the globe access to safe water and sanitation. We also met with folks who are working in India and Africa to provide safe drinking water to people in need.”

So far the HydroGene team has raised $20,000 in seed funds through ASU entrepreneurship programs, such as Innovation Challenge and the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. In addition to developing a biosensor to detect water contamination, the startup is also working on a rapid screening process to prevent distribution of contaminated food in the developed world.

“An event like CGI U is something that most students don’t have the opportunity to experience during his or her college career,” he said. “It is a great place to generate and refine ideas, and get inspired. Many college students aren’t sure of their path in life, so CGI U is a great way to engage with others as a volunteer or participant, find out what you are passionate about and answer your calling.”

Patel’s tips to anyone who wishes to start a venture are:

• Be confident and run with your idea. Even if you fail the first, second or even the third time, your experiences alone are valuable.

• Seek out a mentor who has worked on the same topic/idea or similar ones. Their experience is valuable and can often steer you in the right direction.

• Make sure a market exists for your idea. Ask people if they’d buy your product and listen to any changes or ideas they have. Knowing if your concept of a product would be in demand in the long run is critical to developing a successful company.

Patel is also serving as the campus representative for the 2014 CGI U meeting, set to take place March 21-23 on the ASU Tempe campus. His role will include meeting with CGI U participants from ASU and helping them perfect their poster presentations and pitches. He will also mentor students who wish to volunteer at the event.

The success of this national event will depend on the help of  more than 150 ASU undergraduate and graduate student volunteers. Volunteers should be willing to work from Friday afternoon through Saturday, and will also be required to attend two evening training sessions the week prior to the event.

Volunteer roles include: serving as on-campus hosts and ushers; assisting with the production and logistics of the event; helping CGI staff with press and media; and supporting CGI’s program staff. Students with skills in photography, video and social media are encouraged to apply. Volunteers should not anticipate having insider access to CGI U sessions.

The online volunteer application is now available through Friday, Feb. 14 at the CGI U at Arizona State University website: Students who are accepted to volunteer will be notified by CGI U in mid-March.

To learn more about the Clinton Global Initiative University’s 2014 meeting, click here.