TECH TALK: Remember when we drank tapwater?

September 09, 2018

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CTO Shayan Sohail places all bets on his invention as the ultimate clean-drinking water solution.
CTO Shayan Sohail places all bets on his invention as the ultimate clean-drinking water solution.

Imagine a day when you don’t have to think twice before turning on your tap and drinking water from it. No more calling your mineral/filter water guy to ask when the cans will be delivered and obviously, no more worries about the water budget!

That’s what PakVitae, a Karachi-based startup, is claiming to offer: easy access to clean water at an economical cost.

The company currently has two prototypes on the market: PakStraw — a straw that cleans your water as you drink through it — and PakCommunity — a simple filter that can be attached to a tap or water cooler and will clean 400,000 litres in its lifespan. So far, it has sold around 5,000 units in total. Through the use of nanofiber membranes, Shayan Sohail, the Chief Technology Official (CTO) of PakVitea, claims the technology can eliminate even the tiniest of bacteria and viruses up to a 99 per cent success rate.

But Sohail isn’t satisfied with that. “Technology-wise, our products are very effective but they are largely meant for survival. You can’t always depend on a straw to access clean water. So now we are working on more consumer-friendly products,” he says. PakVitae is primarily aiming at the home market (among others): a product that can purify your water at source, and is both feasible and stylish.

It all started from an entrepreneurship course when a professor motivated Sohail and company — three chemical engineering students at UET Lahore — to invent something unique. “A little before that, we had come across those straws that decontaminate even mud water and looked into the science of it. We started with some PVC pipes and filters to make a very basic version of it,” the CTO says.

“The project presentation failed miserably but it was enough to earn the attention of our professor who pushed us to continue developing the product and even financed quite a bit of the material,” he adds. Soon after, they got incubated at the National Incubation Centre, Lahore.

Sohail had a rather rocky start to his entrepreneurial journey: from working in university labs to test different materials to sending random emails for seeking guidance from top experts. In fact, Sohail and his team mates accumulated Rs5 million in debt.

“Until last year, we were running shop to shop to sell our prototypes to make ends meet. Finding customers through contacts and trying their luck through Facebook, we were seriously financially constrained,” he recalls. But it all changed this year when Sohail found the man of his dreams: an investor — Javed Syed, the CEO of a local private equity firm, Invency Ltd — who knew all about water purification.

“Instead of going for seed funding, we somehow leaped to the C-round money,” notes Sohail, while not disclosing the amount raised. And just like that, Sohail moved to the big boys’ club. The company is now working on ten products — ranging from kitchen filters to community wheelies — to be launched in July 2019 and will be priced between Rs1,500-35,000.

What is perhaps unusual is the way they plan to sell the products. The home market goods will be sold like fast moving consumer goods — which is why the company is creating its own distribution channel — and all in all hopes to sell 1.5 million units a year. In addition to the home market, PakVitae has products lined up for NGOs and military bodies.

While PakVitae is a water purification company in essence, Sohail doesn’t feel his competition is limited to the filter manufacturers. “Our goal is to replace the bottled water,” he says. And the company has already engaged top advertising and market research agencies to work out everything. Given the scale of the project, an experienced chief — Jarri Masood, Country Manager of the global manufacturing firm 3M — has been put at the helm.

The R&D is at the heart of what PakVitae does so it also makes sense then that they have teamed up with research centres across the world to further work on their technology.

Given the industrial nature of his product, Sohail’s challenges were vastly different from the wider startup scene. “Currently, the Pakistani startup scene only caters to the tech sector. Industrial startups have been missing from the arena because they require a lot more patience. A $100,000 would buy techies a year but won’t even cover us for three months,” Sohail says.

“We need continuous reiterations and experimentations with different materials to know what works. That is both time-consuming and extremely expensive,” he adds.

The leap has been rather drastic: from a trio with two minimalist products and meagre means to a full-fledged corporate entity with an advisory board and a range of products. Let’s see how well they can jump!

The writer is member of staff:
m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com
Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2018