Portaqua – Changing Lives at the First Drop

"Portaqua:  Changing Lives at the First Drop," by Z. Kelly Queijo, was published in the Blue Ridge Business Journal on 2/23/09.  Thanks to the Blue Ridge Business Journal, we share the full text of the article with you.  For photographs,  please view this reprint (.pdf), courtesy of the Blue Ridge Business Journal.

Portaqua is a member company of business acceleration center and technology incubator VT KnowledgeWorks.

Portaqua:  Changing Lives at the First Drop
by Z. Kelly Queijo

In his poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:
“Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink. ”

These words depict a terrible irony for the sailors on a ship lost at sea, surrounded by water with no way to make it drinkable. Those words, written in 1798, could just as aptly describe today’s global water crisis. According to the World Bank, roughly 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water.

Emphasis is on “access” and “clean.” Water is abundant, covering 70 percent of the earth’s surface, but gathering the resources to purify it has historically been an expensive, labor-intensive task, typically handled by large, commercial water processing plants.

According to Rafael Gonzalez, founder and CEO of Blacksburg-based Portaqua, once the distance from the plant exceeds 150 miles, the cost of transporting water from large-scale central processing plants can easily account for 40 percent of the price of the water.

Gonzalez, along with Mexico-based business partner, Max Junghanns Albers, realized that eliminating the cost of transporting water long distances was the easiest way to reduce costs. Together, they formed Portaqua, LLC and developed a small scale potable water processing plant that could easily and consistently provide clean water to the typically under-served regions of the world including Mexico. The company is looking into expanding into other countries this year.

A simple solution to a worldwide problem

“We wanted to design a system that would cover the water needs of the individual village with 100-200 people, up to a small city with a population of 15-20,000,” says Gonzalez. “We looked at this market because the large companies are focused on large cities and large projects. Those villages and small cities don’t have the expertise to operate complex water plants. So, we designed a simple system that could be managed by someone with a seventh or eighth-grade education. We could provide it to the village and they could have EPA standard water quality and at the same time create jobs.”

Portaqua, LLC was established in 2005 and within three years, Gonzalez and Albers, president of the company, have taken their business from the brainstorming phase to a global corporation with a line of products that can meet a significant portion of the world’s population’s need for clean, safe water. Currently, 53 of Portaqua’s potable water systems are in use throughout Mexico and are 100 percent operational, which Gonzalez says is impressive considering the education level of the plant managers.

According to Gonzalez, at the commercial market level, a typical water company, say a Coke or Pepsi, sells water for $1.20 -$1.80 per five-gallon jug. “We can come in and sell a five-gallon jug, at the community level, for 35-40 cents, which runs only about eight cents a gallon.”

Funding for the villages to purchase these small scale water plants has come from a mixture of public and government funding. In Mexico, government agencies provide resources at the state level. Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank represent two sources for public funding.

Building a local economy, five people at a time

In all of the plants, the workers are local people. In a village of 100 people, a Portaqua operation will typically mean jobs for about five of its citizens. In the town of Cerro Pietro, in the State of Queretaro, Mexico, the plant manager is female and is known throughout her village as “La Señora de Agua” (The Water Lady). Her notoriety is typical of the success women in small villages are experiencing as water plant managers. Gonzalez says that the state agencies in Mexico report that female managers tend to take better care of plant operations. Because of this, the agencies now seek to hire more women.

First Response

Not long after Portaqua units were in production, officials from Mexico’s state government contacted the company to ask if the water plant could be configured to be completely portable and delivered on the back of a pickup truck for emergency response situations. Gonzalez said “Yes, we can,” and proceeded to modify the design to fit on the back of trailer. The Emergency Plant System (EPS) First Drop, their portable water plant, sells for $70,000-$100,000.

Rather than wait for a disaster to strike, Gonzalez showed the state agencies how they can keep the EPS unit in production as a water bottling plant. By attaching a bottle filling machine to the water plant, they can bottle their own water and in roughly a year’s time, they are able to recoup their cost by eliminating the need to purchase water from a commercial source.

The EPS First Drop system is designed to treat most any type of water. According to Gonzalez, it can even treat the type of water found on the streets of New Orleans, following Katrina.

A Portaqua water plant measures 4-ft: wide by 5-ft: tall, and fits easily into a space about the size of single-car garage. A plant is shipped pre-wired and pre-plumbed. It can usually become operational in about two hours.

Through a partnership with CEMEX, one of the world’s leaders in the cement industry, Portaqua also offers a modular, pre-fabricated cement building that can be assembled on site in as few as five days. It, too, comes plumbed and wired, ready to support the water plant systems.

Based on the number of units sold and population volume, Gonzalez estimates that approximately 230,000 to 300,000 people’s lives have been impacted by access to Portaqua-treated clean water.

Market, magic,mentors and moxie

Gonzalez located his business at Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center (VTCRC),as a member of the business incubator, VTKnowledgeWorks. Jim Flowers, director of VT KnowledgeWorks, knew right away Gonzalez represented the qualities necessary to succeed in business.

“The Portaqua enterprise is a prime example of a business concept that met our Four Fundamental Factors test for probable success: Market, magic, mentors and moxie. Rafael Gonzalez and his Portaqua concept arrived at VT KnowledgeWorks with all four factors in abundance,” says Flowers.

Gonzalez knew the market – a growing world population in need of basic human necessities: food, water and energy. He knew his product could meet one of those basic needs and have an impact on the other two for a low cost. Magic came in the simplicity of design, the ease of operation, and the flexibility to connect to other systems for added functionality or distribution.

“The product,” according to Gonzalez, “is a village-scale, portable, mostly automatic water plant that can be operated by almost anybody, using almost any sort of available local water. It is small enough that all the output can be comfortably carried away by average people in portable containers. No piping is necessary, although our system can be attached to a pipe delivery system if it is available.”

Flowers describes a person with “moxie” as one who gets things done. “The moxie of Rafael Gonzalez is readily apparent to anyone. He is a high-energy person, with a constant gleam in his eye, and a previous record of successful entrepreneurship.” Gonzalez also owns and operates Xelera, a specialty chemical company based in Salem.

Building on Portaqua’s successful start, Gonzalez and Albers have expanded their product line to include “Solo,” a ceramic filtration system for home use, and “Baqua,” a patented, three-gallon-per-bag, storage solution targeting hospitals, nursing homes and other industries that need to store water as part of their emergency preparedness system.

From homeowners to hospitals, villages to small cities, it seems the Portaqua team has found a way to work with water, water…everywhere.

***

Thanks again to the Blue Ridge Business Journal for "Portaqua:  Changing Lives at the First Drop," by Z. Kelly Queijo, published in the Blue Ridge Business Journal on 2/23/09.  

Comments

  1. Thank you again to the Blue Ridge Business Journal for providing the text of this article.

    Z. Kelly Queijo wrote art about Portaqua's passion.

    I found it an act of deepest respect for to make both globally available through a blog post on Inside VT KnowledgeWorks.

  2. Wally Newton says:

    Virginia Tech KnowledgeWorks is a key partner to the success of Portaqua as is noted in the article. And that has now expanded to the academic and research sides of VT as we have discovered numerous VT departments where the global challenges and opportunities of water purification are being tackled in the classroom and labs.

    With good water comes better health. Without good water, poor health and economic problems are a virtual certainty. Even in the face of the recession, solutions to water shortages and water quality are part and parcel to what Portaqua is doing by teaming with the assistance of Virginia Tech and the many people who are now familiar with our work.

    We continue to expand our reach, even in these times, as clean water positively drives both the economic and social systems we all face daily.

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