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Companies get help making water out of humid air

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC

GreenFocus-logo-150SPOKANE, Wash. – The marketplace is littered with innovative, potentially game-changing technology that never quite caught on.

That’s why Spokane-based GreenFocus spent 18 months beta-testing its WaterBoy air-to-water generator in Manila and working through supply chain challenges before ramping up sales and marketing efforts in the Philippines.

“You either sail or you sink real quick,” said Wade Bodlovic, CEO of the company, which specializes in introducing atmospheric water solutions to regions where access to fresh water is limited.

Ultra-pure, energy conscious

The Philippines is the focus of the first major export initiative for the WaterBoy, which was co-developed by GreenFocus Inc. and AWG International, both eastern Washington technology companies.

Bodlovic-with-WaterBoy-300Air-to-water generators essentially draw moisture out of the air to create pure drinking water. They work somewhat like a reverse air conditioner but with five levels of filtration, including ultraviolet (UV) light.

In fact, said Bodlovic, the WaterBoy delivers water that is 99.9999 percent pure, which makes it more pure than most bottled water.

“It’s the best tasting water there is,” he said.

GreenFocus also provides atmospheric water generators paired with renewable energy sources so that the units can be used in disaster relief operations or when users are trying to cut their energy consumption.

25 liters per day

In the Philippines, where humidity is consistently high, the WaterBoy can create more than 25 liters of water per day on average for about the same cost as running a typical refrigerator.

WaterBoys are being marketed to high-end consumers who want a cost-effective source of clean drinking water without the waste or inconvenience of buying bottled water.

GreenFocus evaluated a variety of regions to decide where the WaterBoy would be met with strong market support, and the Philippines was at the top of the list, Bodlovic said, because of its high humidity, population density and demand for fresh water.

Export rules, infrastructure, marketing

Despite the perceived demand, entering the market wasn’t easy. It rarely is.

Along with navigating export rules and regulations at home while testing the units abroad, GreenFocus and AWG had to find a supplier in the region who could manufacture the machines to their specifications and deliver them on time.

Then GreenFocus spent countless hours creating and deploying a marketing plan to introduce the new technology to a skeptical public. The company also needed to put infrastructure in place to ensure the units could be serviced quickly if problems developed.

“Bad news travels farther and faster than good news,” Bodlovic said.

Help from international trade expert

Fortunately, the news has been good. Starting with 20 units in 2012, the company has sold more than 100 air-to-water generators in the Philippines, including 50 in just the last few months.

Throughout the process, GreenFocus and AWG have received assistance from Vern Jenkins, an international export advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

The Washington SBDC (http://wsbdc.org) is a network of 26 business advisors and two international trade experts who work one-on-one with small business clients to help them start, grow or transition their businesses. Jenkins is based in Spokane and international trade specialist Sharon Sappington is based in Seattle, but both advisors consult with SBDC clients across the state, depending on the issue at hand.

The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University and receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Additional support comes from local economic development agencies and institutions of higher education.

Troubleshooter, sounding board

“Vern is a consummate professional,” said Rocco Luongo, chief technology officer at GreenFocus. “He has been instrumental in helping us with import and export regulations and procedures.”

Jenkins’ many years of international experience enable him to help troubleshoot obstacles as they arise, as well as help clients avoid potential problems in the first place.

“Vern has been a wonderful sounding board – a very knowledgeable sounding board,” Luongo said.

In addition to offering valuable advice on immediate issues related to export and import regulations, Jenkins has drawn on his previous experience in Southeast Asia to help GreenFocus work through various challenges, from finding skilled engineers to provide quality control at the factory to mapping a strategy to ensure that the company’s intellectual property is protected.

Planning ahead

While the immediate challenge is creating and sustaining interest in the WaterBoy, especially among Filipino business executives and high-profile celebrities, an ongoing challenge is anticipating where the technology will be in five, 10 or 15 years and planning for that.

“It’s hard for a small company to look forward and take care of the present,” Luongo said. But, he said, if you aren’t looking forward, you’ll get left behind.

Jenkins has been a big help there, as well, Luongo said: “He keeps us focused on the next generation, too.”

Relief after Typhoon Haiyan

Luongo is optimistic that technology will continue to improve so production costs decrease while water output increases, which will make the technology more useful in impoverished areas.

Indeed, when Typhoon Haiyan hit in November 2013, GreenFocus, in collaboration with local partners, donated 20 WaterBoy units to provide clean water in devastated areas and raised nearly $50,000 for relief aid.

 

Contacts:

Wade Bodlovic, GreenFocus Inc., wbodlovic@greenfocusinc.com

Rocco Luongo, GreenFocus Inc., rluongo@greenfocusinc.com

Vern Jenkins, Washington SBDC, vern.jenkins@wsbdc.org

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