Sensing Success

Web-Based Technology Helps Developing World With Water, More

One of the issues with deploying water filtrations systems, high efficiency wood-burning cook stoves, water pumps, or hand-washing stations in rural locations of the developing world is that the technologies can be challenging to monitor.

Malfunctions or breakdowns often go unreported, leading to a lack of water, or water contamination. The impacts of cook stoves on indoor air quality is nearly impossible to monitor. It's hard to tell if people are washing their hands to help stop the spread of disease. And hiring field workers to check on these technologies and file reports is expensive, with accuracy often mixed.

An Oregon BEST Commercialization Grant to Portland State University researchers collaborating and Portland-based Stevens Water Monitoring Systems, Inc. is helping solve this issue. The grant sped commercialization of a wireless water, air and environmental sensing technology that integrates web-based data collection and analysis to help humanitarian aid agencies more efficiently monitor resources from anywhere in the world, and then respond.

The funding enabled the PSU team to produce production-quality hardware, pursue marketing opportunities, and launch SWEETSense, Inc., a new Oregon startup that employs three people and counting.

The company is working closely with major aid agencies and foundations, including Mercy Corps, USAID, the Gates Foundation, Living Water International, and others to improve the efficiency of deployed technologies.

"Obtaining real-time data like this is unheard of on international development projects," says Dexter Gauntlett, COO of SWEETSense. "Although the cost of the sensor might add five to 10 percent to the total cost of a water pump, it actually reduces the cost/liter delivered."

Since receiving the Oregon BEST grant, the company has installed more than 250 devices in 10 countries, and new orders for hundreds more are coming in, including 200 bound for existing water pumps in Rwanda, where 98 percent cell phone coverage enables the web-based technology.

"The Oregon BEST grant came at a critical time for our team because prior research grants didn't cover taking the concept forward into a viable product, so we were at risk of losing all momentum," says Evan Thomas, Oregon BEST Member Faculty at PSU and CEO of SWEETSense. "Oregon BEST's grant was specifically targeted at this 'valley of death' and propelled us forward from concept to a fully viable product and a new Oregon-based startup. Without the Oregon BEST grant, the technology would still be trapped in the lab and we'd have nothing to deliver our customers."

The technology also has other applications, including monitoring the efficiency of energy use in buildings.

To see examples of the real-time monitoring visit the SWEETData™ Monitoring website.