Changing the world isn't hard. All you need is an idea and a little bit of courage. Fortunately for local inventor George Page -- and the estimated 4,000 people who die everyday from drinking contaminated water -- he has plenty of both.
After leaving his post at the Chicago Department of Water in 2009, Page was inspired to use his aqua talents to develop a product that lets people carry a water-purification system in their pockets. His watching the coverage of the catastrophic earthquake Haiti had in 2010. The product is called the PocketPure, and the new company behind it is PortAPure. They both launched in December 2010.
I gave Page a call to talk about what it was like to quit his job and follow his heart, the process of developing an idea into a physical product, and his plans for where he wants to take his company next year.
You quit your job to pursue the Pocketpure?
George Page: I left the city December of 2009. It was the earthquake in Haiti that took place in early January of 2010. I happened to be watching a demonstration video of Ashley Judd. She was on The Joy Behar Show, and it was the day after the earthquake. She did a demonstration of how to use water-purification tablets. She took two large containers, put water from a river in one container and she put a water-purification tablet in that container with the dirty water, stirred it with a spoon for 15 minutes, and then she said after you let it sit an additional 15 minutes you put a T-shirt over an empty container, and pour that through to sift off the sediment. That container of purified, filtered water is what you could drink.
I just thought to myself, "There had to be an easier way." I instantly came up with the design idea and the strategy behind making the Pocketpure product. Basically, an easy-to-use, expandable, collapsible device that winds up to make purification tablets and a suction filter to filter off the sediment. It's one compact system that collapses down to be less than two inches for storage. It basically takes the place of that entire demonstration.
How did you go from it being an idea in your head to it becoming a tangible product?
George Page: I'm a chemical engineer, and throughout my career I've always tinkered and invented or thought of creative methods. Even in past work experiences -- I had an internship at NASA's jet-propulsion lab and that's in addition to an experience I had at Kimberly-Clark working on the initial legwork for the patent. Really, in my mind, that solidified my want to use my creative energy and my engineering background to make innovations and innovate. That was the basic gist of it.
I have a friend of the family who's a patent attorney who was able to help consult me on my legal matters of filing the patents and so was able to get some good advice there. I just decided this would be realizing a childhood dream of wanting to invent. That's what the main motivation for me was, launching into the business full-time and researching, patenting, and developing the design and manufacturing the product.
Is this your first startup?
George Page: No, I've had other startups that were Internet-based, but this is the first that is specifically tailored to my background and experience with water treatment and my chemical-engineering degree.
What have you learned so far with a venture that's a little closer to your heart as opposed to the others you've run before?
George Page: I think for me as a scientist there's nothing more rewarding than a patent and being involved in patents. I think years from now, my name will continue to be on the patent for generations to come. That's the differentiation for me.
How have things been going so far with your company?
George Page: In the last 10 months we've been able to generate some significant traction. We are still just a startup because we've been around less than a year but we've been able to conduct orders that have led to pilot studies in Haiti, Japan, and we're working on one in Jamaica right now. We've also been recognized by the Global Cleantech cluster as a top-30 Cleantech later-stage startup globally. I'll be traveling to Dublin, Ireland on November 14 for that ceremony. We've also been locally recognized by Tech Cocktail as an emerging startup and by the Chicago Innovation Awards.
Is there a benchmark you're hoping to hit when you're a year old?
George Page: We'd like to ultimately make inroads in the developing markets. We have really innovative product developments that are up and coming. One is our pocket filter, which filters down to .2 microns, removing contaminants, making water safe enough for an adult to consume. We're also working on a pocket-filter plus, which will filter down to .02 microns. That will be targeted for children under the age of five in the developing world. That will remove all risk of diarrhea disease, which kills over a billion kids a year. We're really excited about our new innovative developments, and we're planning to get those to market by the end of the year. Our one-year benchmark will be to have a full line of purification and filtration products that will make a significant impact in reducing waterborne illnesses worldwide.
What are you setting your sights on for next year?
George Page: We're looking to just grow the business globally. The most effective areas such as India and Africa, we're looking to make inroads into. We're looking to hopefully lower the number of waterborne illness and deaths globally.
Are there any perks to running a business like this out of Chicago? Are there any programs you can take advantage of here that you couldn't otherwise?
George Page: Yeah, we feel that the atmosphere in Chicago right now is really escalating for investment and for opportunities for startups. I think that Chicago, on a global stage, is beginning to get recognition where we were once overlooked. So, you can have venture capitalists that are seeking out startup opportunities in Chicago. I'm also part of the newly formed Blue Tech Alliance, which will basically be water-related innovation businesses that are in Chicago. We're forming a council on that. There's just a lot of good traction and opportunities for Chicago businesses at the current time.