Clean water innovator seeks global market

Inside a local company’s production facility, about 15,000 tablets called MadiDrops are packed in boxes and stacked against a wall. Collectively, these tablets could provide safe water for 1,000 families for 8-15 years.

When one tablet is dropped into a water container, it releases silver ions that remove harmful pathogens overnight. Leaving the tablet in the water container allows a family of five to drink safe water for 6-12 months.

In addition to the 15,000 units in stock, MadiDrop has the capacity to produce 30,000 units per month. The company’s challenge right now is navigating a global market to efficiently get their product into the hands of all the people worldwide who need it.

“Billions globally are in need,” said Brad Ponack, in charge of Engineering and Manufacturing at MadiDrop. “But tapping into that market has become a little bit of a hurdle.”    

Since MadiDrop was founded in 2015, the company has primarily partnered with international, humanitarian, service, and nonprofit organizations to distribute 20,000 MadiDrops in communities in over 40 countries.

“We love to hear the testimonies and the true stories and the impact,” Ponack said. “[But] 20,000 units is not significant when you look at the bigger picture with the global market and what the needs are.”

MadiDrop began operating out of their current Charlottesville production facility in late 2015, where the MadiDrop team hand-made each tablet. Partnering with companies who can produce the base ceramic for the tablet allowed MadiDrop to reach their current capacity to produce about 30,000 units per month, according to Ponack.

“If we’re able to produce 30,000 units a month, we want to be able to sell 30,000 units a month,” Ponack said. “100 percent of the effort right now is on getting distribution channels.”

If MadiDrop can sell to commercial mass distributors all around the world, those distributors could profit from reselling the stock in their area of the globe, and millions more people could benefit from receiving a product that purifies their water, Ponack said.

MadiDrop is trying to connect with these mass distributors by leveraging market research and pre-existing distribution channels so they don’t have to start from scratch, according to Jay Seals, in charge of Sales and Marketing at MadiDrop.

David Dusseau, CEO and Co-Founder of MadiDrop, says the company’s short term goal is to build market presence in Eastern Africa, India, and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Our big goal is to get to the point where we are moving and selling millions, if not tens of millions, of MadiDrops in places all over the world and people are using it as a very common, standard tool for keeping their water clean and free of pathogens,” Dusseau said.

“We’re small but we’re trying to change the world,” Dusseau added.

The MadiDrop was invented in a University of Virginia lab by Dr. Jim Smith, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at MadiDrop. Smith said there are many water purification methods that work. But an effective method also needs to be cheap, easy to use, and socially acceptable, in that it doesn’t change the taste or color of the water. MadiDrop is unique in that it fits this challenging set of design criteria, Smith said.

“I do think it’s a revolutionary product,” Smith said. “There’s really nothing else like it on the market.”

Dusseau agreed that the MadiDrop is popular because it’s effective, easy to use and socially acceptable.

“People like the MadiDrop because it’s natural, it’s just clay and silver, there’s nothing chemical, no skull and crossbones on the label,” Dusseau said. “And they like it because it doesn’t change the taste of the water.”

Dusseau said improving a family’s water quality can affect the family’s whole life.

“We’re small but we’re trying to change the world.”

David Dusseau, CEO and Co-Founder of MadiDrop

“You see families’ health improving, and as a result, kids don’t have to miss school,” Dusseau said. “Adults aren’t sick and don’t have to take care of the sick, so there’s a lot more free time and less burden on the family, more opportunities to make a living and make money.”

Ultimate Mission, an American organization that teaches clean water safety in Andhra Pradesh, India, has bought 450 units of MadiDrops over the last three years to distribute around the villages they work with.

“We’ve seen a big effect,” said Jim Reynolds of Ultimate Mission. “We can see the villages getting healthier. We’re getting reports that dysentery is dropping by 40 percent.”

“I plan to buy a whole bunch more,” Reynolds added. “The only thing that keeps me from buying more is sponsor’s funding.”

Nonprofits are hard pressed for funds, and the majority of nonprofits that would be interested in buying MadiDrops can’t afford them, Ponack said. And the same challenge is true for individuals.

“[The MadiDrop is] a fair, low price,” Ponack said. “But sometimes the price isn’t even near what people can afford in those far-flung, water-challenged and economically-challenged communities.”

The MadiDrop team is constantly looking at improving their product, whether in price, durability, or another quality, and tests the tablets in their Charlottesville facility, as well as at UVa.

“How do we make it better? That’s always the question,” said Ponack. “How do we make it lighter, smaller, more effective?”

MadiDrop is set up as a public benefit corporation, a choice which Dusseau said best fits the company.

“Our company and our product is designed to help out people who don’t have a lot and live in challenging conditions,” Dusseau said. “The focus is on maximizing impact, not maximizing profitability.”

“A typical business has an inherent expectation that you’re in business to make money,” Dusseau added. “We’re in business to make money, but make it as a result of having as much public good impact as we can.”

Brad Ponack tests the MadiDrop by running it through experiments with challenged water from sources such as the Shenandoah or James Rivers. Various tests take months or years and determine whether the product disinfects and kills bacteria as it should.
Credit: Kayli Wren, Charlottesville Tomorrow