World of difference
Through the Acara program, U of M students are solving global problems one venture at a time
The first phrase Kaylea Brase, ’17 M.S., learned in the Urdu language was “My stomach is full.” As she visited families in slum communities in Bangalore, India, to learn how they stored and purified water, she was often greeted with tea, rosewater, and sometimes meals—despite the fact that these families had very little food themselves. “People in India are very welcoming and hospitable, which made it easier to visit with them in their homes and hear about their lives,” she says.
Brase’s visits were part of her market research for a business venture she and a partner are officially launching in August. Pure Paani, which started as a project for a University of Minnesota class, will provide affordable, lightweight, hand-operated water filtration devices to people who don’t have access to clean water.
No right answers
Brase and her business partner, civil engineering graduate student Christopher Bulkley-Logston, developed the idea during an interdisciplinary Grand Challenges course offered by a U of M program called Acara. Students are presented with social and environmental concerns—say, the lack of clean water in Bangalore—then spend a semester working in teams to research the problem and come up with financially viable solutions. To date, students from 11 colleges at the U have participated.
Teams can draw on the expertise of business mentors in the Twin Cities and research coordinators in the countries outside the U.S. in which Acara operates: India, Uganda, and Nicaragua. Acara, which is part of the U’s Institute on the Environment in cooperation with various University colleges, also has relationships with non-profits that are working on the same problems students are addressing in those three countries.
One thing that makes Acara classes different from typical college courses is that the instructors and students are learning together. “The instructors don’t know the right answer to these challenges, and we don’t know if students’ solutions will work,” says Megan Voorhees, Acara associate director. “There are lots of examples of projects we thought wouldn’t work, but they did.”
Some teams go on to present their projects at the Acara Challenge, a competition in which students are judged for their ability to articulate the problem they’re addressing and the solution they’ve created. Finalists get assistance with refining their goals and creating a viable launch program. Winners receive financial support to help them further develop their products or services.
In the 2016 Acara Challenge, Bulkley-Logston and Brase won gold in the international division for their Pure Paani filtration device. Bulkley-Logston joined the Peace Corps and went to Cameroon, where he worked with a local technician to develop several variations of their prototype, including a foot-powered version. Brase interned with an organization in Bangalore that uses a smartphone app to test water quality. While there, she spent nearly a year visiting slum communities and doing other on-the-ground research for Pure Paani.
She discovered that people living in slums get their water in several ways: from a community tap that turns on twice a day, from a water delivery truck, or from taps in their homes. Because the water is often contaminated, it needs to be boiled or filtered to be safe. Some residents use clay filters that can take hours to work and aren’t necessarily reliable, resulting in people getting sick, missing work, and losing income, Brase says.
MAKING CHANGE POSSIBLE
In its nine years of existence, Acara has grown from one class focusing on one country to a multifaceted program that includes courses, internships, study abroad opportunities, partnerships in four countries, and a competition through which students receive support to refine their ideas.
None of that would have happened without the help of donors, says Fred Rose, Acara director. Generous gifts from Robert W. and Joyce H. Rosene and the C. Charles Jackson Foundation, along with gifts of all sizes from dozens of other donors, add up to assist students who want to start ventures that will solve real-world social or environmental problems.
Rose is hoping to raise additional funds, especially for economically disadvantaged students who may find it financially difficult to accept unpaid internships.
“People living in the slums are really busy and they care about convenience. Some work two or three jobs,” she says. “We’re trying to minimize how many changes we’re asking our customers to make to be able to use this product.”
This fall, she and Bulkley-Logston will move to Bangalore to devote themselves to the project full-time. They have a provisional patent on their device, and are looking at various business models: for example, marketing it directly to consumers or working with a water delivery service that would charge a small fee to pump water.
Talking and testing
Not all Acara ventures are as successful as Pure Paani has been so far, but success isn’t the point, says Fred Rose, Acara director and founder. “What we’re trying to do is to help students be change-makers and leaders,” he says. “It’s getting them out there working on a real problem, gaining that experience and confidence, and using that throughout their career.”
That was exactly the case for A.J. Schwidder, ’11 M.B.A., founder and chief technology officer at Upstream Technologies, a stormwater management company in New Brighton, Minnesota. As a graduate student, he was part of an Acara team that worked on a biogas digester that would transform food scraps and manure into methane to heat people’s homes in northern India. Replacing the wood-burning stoves that were causing a high incidence of lung disease in the community seemed like a great idea. But when Schwidder’s team talked to residents, they discovered that no one saw the wood-burning stoves as a problem or had money to pay for an alternative.
“I learned a lot about how to test an idea in the marketplace,” he says. “You’re not going to sell a product or service if you see a problem but your customers don’t.”
His group reluctantly abandoned the biogas digester and came up with a new idea: a low-cost drip irrigation system that local farmers were excited about and willing to pay for. The venture eventually became MyRain, which currently provides drip irrigation for small-plot farmers in southern India.
Though Schwidder is no longer involved in MyRain, he says the lessons he learned in the Acara program are still with him today. One Upstream Technologies product, the SAFL Baffle (which he helped develop while he worked at the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization as a student), removes sediment from water in storm drains in 22 states and several Canadian provinces. “What I learned in Acara helped me ask the right questions when I was researching the market for this product,” he says.
“How are government agencies and private developers currently managing sediment in stormwater and what are their complaints about it? Is this product something that addresses problems they have?”
Knowing how to ask good questions and pay attention to the answers is a critical skill in any career, says Acara’s Rose. “You learn that people who are affected by this problem know a lot, even if they’re illiterate and you have a college degree,” he says. “You really learn to appreciate the act of empathy.”
Amy Sitze is a contributing writer for Legacy.
Since Acara began in 2008, 654 University of Minnesota students have participated in the program, launching about 20 ventures that are still active. They include:
MIGHTY AXE HOPS
Largest hops farm in Minnesota
Service in East Africa that uses text messaging to send information to pregnant women and screen for complications
Online community that assists women with finding products for menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, and more
EAT FOR EQUITY
Minneapolis-based business that hosts community feasts and offers catering services using locally grown foods