33 Buckets: Solution to global clean water crisis has ASU flavor

How can 33 Buckets change the world? Meet the ASU students who are creating a solution to the global clean water crisis.

Einstein once said: “Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value.” A growing number of today’s college students embrace this message. They go to school to gain skills and insights with the idea of using them to better the world. Many of these social entrepreneurs come to the table with big ideas; some make a huge impact. Mark Huerta is one of them.

Today, Huerta, 25, is an ASU engineering education doctoral student, and he’s also the CEO of nonprofit 33 Buckets, which helps communities in underdeveloped countries gain access to clean drinking water. About 1.8 billion people globally do not have access to safe, potable water, and each year millions die by drinking from contaminated sources. It’s a problem Huerta and fellow ASU students and graduates are now tackling.

“To see those kids drink clean water for the first time, it’s the most rewarding feeling you can ever have,” he said. “I went to ASU because I wanted to change the world. The thing I never would have expected was how the world would have changed me.”

ASU Engineering doctoral student Mark Huerta, along with fellow engineering students formed “33 Buckets,” a nonprofit whose mission is to create filtration systems and sustainable infrastructures for developing countries with no access to clean drinking water.

A challenge shapes a man

In 2011 — when Huerta was an undergraduate biomedical engineering student — Enamul Hoque, founder of the Hoque Girls’ College in rural Bangladesh, had a problem. His school’s water supply was contaminated by arsenic. He approached ASU’s Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program for a solution.

The situation was perfectly suited for an engineering student like Huerta who was hungry to use his skills to better the world. So, he, along with peers Swaroon Sridhar, Varendra Silva, Paul Strong and Vid Micevic, immediately set out to create water filter prototypes.

The team brought with it a go-big-or-go-home mindset. If they could engineer one solution, why not develop more? This thinking was further encouraged by ASU, which brought helpful resources to the table. Engineering professors helped refine filter designs. Mentorship from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Startup Center is helping Huerta and his team shape a sustainable nonprofit. And seed capital — from dozens of private donors — was channeled through ASU’s crowdfunding website, PitchFunder.

“It’s that idea that you can do well and do good,” said Brent Sebold, director of the Fulton Startup Center and director for venture development for ASU E+I (Entrepreneurship + Innovation). “It’s why we value entrepreneurship at ASU. It’s not just capitalism, but endeavors to change the world for the better.”


A critical pivot

With the encouragement and mentorship of EPICS program leaders, the team developed an effective prototype involving two five-gallon buckets, a sand filter, oxidation tanks and carbon steel shavings to filter arsenic. Thirty-three is arsenic’s atomic number, so the name “33 Buckets” for the organization was born.

However, the group’s Bangladesh trip in the summer of 2012 brought valuable and somewhat painful lessons. Arsenic wasn’t the true contaminant after all; it was E. coli. Even more, these bright young engineering minds learned quickly that the technology to filter many different water contaminants already existed. Getting clean water to communities in need meant setting up the right system for the situation and, more importantly, putting a plan in place to sustain that system for years to come.

“As an engineer, you want a lot of times to create innovative technology, but that’s not what’s really needed here,” Huerta added. “It was a matter of getting the right technology to the places that needed it [and] … putting someone in a position to operate and manage it.”

33 Buckets learned that a suitable technology was available in the nearby capital of Dhaka and through local university contacts, an entrepreneur was found to help maintain and run a filtration system on the school site. Finding all the right pieces and implementing the plan took considerable time; but after three years, in the winter of 2015, 33 Buckets finally installed a system that now produces 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of clean water per day. The clean water is then sold well below market rate and the funds are used to maintain the filtration system, develop new ones and fund school programs as well. Beyond the 900 girls at the school, clean water now reaches more than 12,000 people in the area.

After Bangladesh, the group pressed on. In 2016, 33 Buckets developed successful filtration systems in villages in the Dominican Republic and Peru, some of whose water supply saw more than 200 times the acceptable E. coli levels (according to World Health Organization standards). Each village poses unique challenges that drive, instead of discourage, Huerta.

“We learned so much implementing that first project (in Bangladesh). … We were a lot more efficient in terms of how fast we could complete the next two,” he added.

These early experiences also helped to establish a valuable relationship with Peruvian government leaders, who may hire the team as consultants to help more villages. If this happens, the team could market itself as global water consultants to governments around the world.


Keeping the momentum

Along the way, ASU business and entrepreneurship professors taught Huerta and other team members to effectively pitch the 33 Buckets concept. These skills have helped them earn tens of thousands of dollars in seed money through crowdfunding, partnerships with private companies, and entrepreneurship contests. Now, Huerta and his team must also focus on a more sustainable financial plan for 33 Buckets.

“It’s difficult for students to wrap their heads around a nonprofit needing a viable business model,” Sebold said, while also noting how impressed he is with the group’s willingness to learn how a business mindset is needed for some aspects of running a nonprofit.

And a contract with the Peruvian government, Huerta understands, would be that first critical piece of business that propels 33 Buckets from a great idea with a lot of heart to a long-term clean water solution that helps millions of people.

Learn more about Arizona State University at asu.edu.


Originally published at www.azcentral.com on January 29, 2017.