The development of new technologies often starts with funded university research. Venture capital firms are eager to back well-tested products or services that are ready to enter the startup phase. However, funding that bridges the gap between these two stages can be hard to come by. The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food System Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT aims to fill this gap with their J-WAFS Solutions grant program. This program provides critical funding to students and faculty at MIT who have promising bench-scale technologies that can be applied to water and food systems challenges, but are not yet market-ready. By supporting the essential steps in any startup journey — customer discovery, market testing, prototyping, design, and more — as well as mentorship from industry experts throughout the life of the grant, this grant program helps to speed the development of new products and services that have the potential to increase the safety, resilience, and accessibility of the world’s water and food supplies.
J-WAFS Solutions grants provide one year of financial support to MIT principal investigators with promising early-stage technologies, as well as mentorship from industry experts and experienced entrepreneurs throughout the grant. With additional networking and guidance provided by MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, project teams are supported as they advance their technologies toward commercialization. Since the start of the program in 2015, J-WAFS Solutions grants have already been instrumental in the launch of two MIT startups — Via Separations and Xibus Systems — as well as an open-source technology to support clean water access for the rural and urban poor in India.
John H. Lienhard V, director of J-WAFS and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering at MIT, describes the role of the J-WAFS Solutions program this way: “The combined effects of unsustainable human consumption patterns and the climate crisis threaten the world’s water and food supplies. These challenges are already present, and the risks were made plain in several recent, high-profile international news reports. Innovation in the water and food sectors can certainly help, and it is urgently needed. Through the J-WAFS Solutions program, we seek to identify nascent technologies with the greatest potential to transform local or even global food and water systems, and then to speed their transfer to market. We aim to leverage MIT’s entrepreneurial spirit to ensure that the water and food needs of our global human community can be met sustainably, now and far into the future.”
Two projects funded by the J-WAFS Solutions program in 2019 are applying this entrepreneurial approach to sensors that support clean water and resilience in the agriculture industry. Three projects, all in the agriculture sector and funded by previous grants, are continuing this year, which together comprise a portfolio of exciting MIT technologies that are helping to resolve water and food challenges across the world.
Simplifying water quality testing in Nepal and beyond
In 2018, the J-WAFS Solutions program supported a collaboration between the MIT-Nepal Initiative, led by professor of history Jeffrey Ravel, MIT D-Lab lecturer Susan Murcott, and the Nepalese non-governmental organization Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO). The project sought to refine the design of a wearable water test kit developed by Susan Murcott that provided simple, accessible ways to test the presence of E. coli in drinking water, even in the most remote settings. In that first year of J-WAFS funding, the research team worked with their Nepali partners, ENPHO, and their social business partner in Nepal, EcoConcern, to finalize the design of their product, called the ECC Vial, which, with the materials that they’ve now sourced, can be sold for less than $1 in Nepal — a significantly lower price than any other water-testing product on the market.
This technology is urgently needed by communities in Nepal, where many drinking water supplies are contaminated by E. coli. Standard testing practices are expensive, require significant laboratory infrastructure, or are just plain inaccessible to the many people exposed to unsafe drinking water. In fact, children under the age of 5 are the most vulnerable, and more than 40,000 children in Nepal alone die every year as a result of drinking contaminated water. The ECC Vial is intended to be the next-generation easy-to-use, portable, low-cost method for E. coli detection in water samples. It is particularly designed for simplicity and is appropriate for use in remote and low-resource settings.
The 2019 renewal grant for the project “Manufacturing and Marketing EC-Kits in Nepal” will support the team in working with the same Nepali partners to optimize the manufacturing process for the ECC Vials and refine the marketing strategy in order to ensure that the technology that is sold to customers is reliable and that the business model for local purveyors is viable now and into the future. Once the product enters the market this year, the team plans to begin distribution in Bangladesh, and will assess market opportunities in India, Pakistan, Peru, and Ghana, where there is a comparable need for a simple and affordable and E.coli indicator testing product for use by government agencies, private water vendors, bottled water firms, international nonprofit organizations and low-income populations without access to safe water. Based on consumer demand in Nepal and beyond, this solution has the potential to reach more than 3 million people during just its first two years on the market.
Supporting the resilience of the citrus industry
Citrus plants are very high-value crops and nutrient-dense foods. They are an important part of diets for people in developing countries with micronutrient deficiencies, as well as for people in developed economies who suffer from obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. Citrus fruits have become staples across seasons, cultures, and geographies, yet the large-scale citrus farms in the United States that support much of our domestic citrus consumption are challenged by citrus greening disease. Also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), it is an uncurable disease caused by bacteria transmitted by a small insect, the Asian citrus psyllid. The bacterial infection causes trees to wither and fruit to develop an unpleasantly bitter taste, rendering the tree’s fruit inedible. If left undetected, HLB can very quickly spread throughout large citrus groves. Since there is no treatment, infected trees must be removed to prevent further spreading. The disease poses an immediate threat to the $3.3 billion-per-year worldwide citrus industry. One of the reasons HLB is so troubling is that there doesn’t yet exist an accessible and affordable early-detection strategy. Once the observable symptoms of the disease have shown up in one part of a citrus grove, it is likely many more trees are already infected.
Taking on this challenge is a research team at MIT led by Karen Gleason, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. A 2019 J-WAFS Solutions grant for the project “Early detection of Huanglongbing (HLB) Citrus Greening Disease” is supporting the development of a new technology for early detection of HLB infection in citrus trees. The team’s strategy is to deploy a series of low-cost, high-sensitivity sensors that can be used on-site, and which are attuned to volatile organic compounds emitted by citrus trees that change in concentration during early-stage HLB infection when trees do not yet exhibit visible symptoms. Using the data gathered via these sensors, an algorithm developed by the team provides a high-accuracy prediction system for the presence of the disease so that farmers and farm managers can make informed decisions about tree removal in order to protect the remaining trees in their citrus groves. Their aim is to detect HLB disease in months, rather than the years it now takes for the infection to be found.
Currently funded J-WAFS Solutions technologies seeking to revolutionize agriculture practices
Three other J-WAFS Solutions projects are continuing through the 2019-20 academic year. From a tractor-pulled reactor unit that can turn agricultural wastes on rural farms into nutrient-rich fertilizer, to a polymer-based additive for agriculture sprays that dramatically reduces runoff recently featured by the BBC, to an affordable soil sensor that aims to make precision farming strategies available to smallholder farmers in India, these J-WAFS-funded projects are each aiming to transform the sustainability of small- and large-scale farming practices.
The J-WAFS Solutions program is implemented in collaboration with Community Jameel — the global philanthropic organization founded by MIT alumnus Mohammed Jameel — and is administered by J-WAFS in partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation.
Fady Jameel, president, international of Community Jameel, says: “Access to clean water, and better management of water resources, can boost countries’ economic growth and can contribute greatly to poverty reduction. We always aim through J-WAFS to support the development and deployment of technologies, policies, and programs which will contribute to help humankind adapt to a rapidly changing planet and combat worldwide water scarcity and food supply.”