Bird Flies the Coop: A Startup Social Enterprise Heads From MIT To Pakistan

5/13/08Follow @gthuang

Attention entrepreneurs: it isn’t always about the technology. Often the real innovation lies in the distribution or business model. Take the problem of providing clean drinking water in developing countries. The technology needed to make individual water supplies safe isn’t rocket science—it ranges from purifier packets of chlorine to special containers that use sunlight to kill microbes.

Yet, across the globe some 2 million people die every year from drinking contaminated water, the vast majority of them children under 5. What’s more, every year there are 4 billion episodes of water-induced diarrheal disease, which causes malnutrition and makes kids miss school, with serious economic consequences and systemic effects on quality of life. In poor areas, boiling and refrigerating water often falls by the wayside because it consumes too much energy and time, and there are few, if any, alternatives.

Enter Sarah Bird, a graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program and founder of SaafWater (pronounced “Soff”-water—saaf is the Hindi and Urdu word for “clean”). Her company is creating a distribution model for getting safe, clean drinking water to urban areas in developing nations. Her first stop: Karachi, Pakistan’s bustling capital city of 15 million.

Bird, who previously studied mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge in the UK, was a runner-up in the MIT $100K entrepreneurship competition last year. She and her partners won $10K to help start the company. SaafWater was incorporated in Delaware last June and in Pakistan as a subsidiary, and has raised $50K in angel investment. After spending last summer in Karachi putting the product together, building local partnerships, and lining up suppliers, Bird is ready to take the plunge, moving there next month to run full-time operations.

So what does it take to get such an enterprise off the ground? What are the financial and operational challenges? I caught up with Bird last week after she had spent yet another all-nighter finishing her Master’s thesis.

Xconomy: So give us the elevator pitch for your company…

Bird: SaafWater is a for-profit social enterprise that provides affordable clean water to the urban poor. We provide a daily dose of chlorine as an affordable option through a high-quality, direct sales network provided by saleswomen who go door to door, and live in the same neighborhood as their customers.

Xconomy: Why focus on Pakistan? What is the state of the water supply there?

Bird: Around 250,000 children die each year in Pakistan from drinking unsafe water. I got involved in 2006 when Dr. Aamir Khan, the president of InterActive Research and Development, an organization in Karachi focused on problems of public health, approached the D-Lab at MIT, where I was a research assistant. The idea for the company was hatched … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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    Just a note: “Saaf” is pronounced like “staff” but without the ‘t’.