How a Student Social Venture Found Success
By: Jessica Kaufman
June 17, 2015
With their first customer lined up, a letter of interest from the Environmental Protection Agency, and a recent First Place win at the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition, Social Enterprise Greenhouse Accelerator graduate HMSolution Inc. is experiencing every startup’s dream: success. Achievement did not come easily, but was made possible by a brilliant idea, supportive mentors, perseverance, and the ambition to do well and do good as a company.
They are looking to make safe drinking water more widely available by implementing the world’s most cost effective water treatment system for the removal of arsenic and other contaminants. Arsenic alone affects over 200 million people across seventy countries and serves as the worthy cause and inspiration behind HMSolution’s product. Arsenic can cause cancer, diabetes, and developmental delays in children.
According to Constanza, CMO, the company plans to conduct a pilot test in the next few months and launch a marketing campaign in order to reach target customers. Currently, they are targeting small water suppliers and plan on expanding to serve beverage companies, mining companies, the food industry, homeowners, and larger water suppliers. Further down the road, they also plan to invest in research and development to continually improve their already impressive technology.
The genius of their product lies not only in its ability to solve a pressing issue, but to do so at a low cost. This low cost derives from the system needing no additional chemicals and no filter replacement until the fifth year of operation. Alternative systems in place today need added chemicals in order to convert one form of arsenic into another before it can even begin to be removed. Current filters also need to be changed as often as every six months, which can become very costly especially for small water suppliers. The current “acceptable” level of arsenic in drinking water defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is ten parts per billion, not because that is ideal, but rather because current systems can only remove arsenic to that level. HMSolution’s product can remove arsenic to levels below two parts per billion and hopes to be able to remove it to “undetectable levels.”
The evolution of this product began when Margaret, CEO, then an industrial engineer from Chile, received a scholarship to study at Brown University. At Brown, she received a master’s in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship. It is there that she was able to develop this innovative technology by working closely with university scientists. Margaret entered the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition for the first time while she was still attending school, working on the business plan, and identifying a commercial application to the technology platform. HMSolution finished as a semi-finalist. It was a promising start for the company, but it was a lot for Margaret to do by herself. Constanza soon joined the company and began doing market research, leading to product changes that will help them have the greatest impact. Initially, the water treatment system was specifically for homeowners, then it evolved for large water suppliers, and finally for small water system owners such as schools, hospitals and office buildings.
“After we presented at the New England Water Works Association annual conference, we discovered a new market niche, the small water systems owners that really need our product. And since these are small systems, the scale up of the technology from a lab scale prototype is less risky,” Margaret explains. The market research also revealed that the sales cycle for small water suppliers is much faster, so selling to this target market can take one or two months as opposed to large water suppliers that could take up to a year.
This realization came not only from market research but from the advice of mentors throughout New England. “We have a set of experienced mentors that are helping us. They are from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, so we have a lot of support from people who have a vast experience, and they are actively helping us” Constanza explains, and identifies one of those mentors as Social Enterprise Greenhouse. HMSolution graduated from Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s Accelerator Program which allowed the company to focus on becoming a social enterprise. As Constanza says, “They provided us with very valuable courses, access to mentors, helped with marketing. It’s a very good team and they support us a lot.” Even after graduating from the program, the company still feels supported by Social Enterprise Greenhouse and describes the organization as being “like a family.” HMSolution is currently working with Social Enterprise Greenhouse to secure additional seed funding.
Creating a social enterprise was a dream for both Constanza and Margaret. Constanza explains, “I always dreamt of being part of a project that creates a positive impact in the world and people, and that’s what made me decide to join HMSolution.” Margaret saw the issue with arsenic contamination in her home country Chile and asked, “What is the government doing? What are the water suppliers doing?” Together, they took the initiative to do something about it.
For other social entrepreneurs hoping to achieve their dreams, Constanza advises, “if they believe in what they are doing, they will have a lot of people say, ‘hey this is not a good idea,’ or they will not believe in your mission, but if you are persistent and fight for what you want to do because you are sure it is a good thing, then you will make it happen. We have had to fight a lot for this company, so never give up.”
In addition to providing safe water for the world, Margaret and Constanza hope to change it by sharing their story. As Constanza says, “We really want to motivate other people to use their creativity, believe in themselves and develop a solution that the world needs.”
Student Venture Intern
Jessica Kaufman is the Social Enterprise Greenhouse Student Venture Intern for Summer 2015. She is working under the Social Enterprise Greenhouse University Initiative, which is funded through the Blackstone Charitable Foundation Innovation Grant to retain students and recent graduates in Rhode Island through enabling them to work on and in social enterprises. Her work centers around documenting the success stories of student and recent graduate social ventures. Learn more about Jessica here.