When Arizona State University senior Nisarg Patel’s friend returned from a research expedition in Guatemala and expressed concern regarding children drinking contaminated water that could cause diarrhea and other waterborne illnesses, it got Patel thinking about a solution.
The Chandler native, along with his friends, soon came up with the idea of soluble protein biosensors to indicate the presence of bacteria in drinking water.
The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1.5 million children under the age of 5 in developing countries die each year due to diarrhea.
“Most of the bacterial biosensors that are currently available are large, require electronics or are too complicated to operate in third-world countries,” Patel, a molecular biosciences and biotechnology major, said. “Our concept of using protein biosensors that emit color when dropped in contaminated water provides a quick and inexpensive way to test for waterborne contamination in developing countries.”
Within six months, the HydroGene team developed a prototype and applied to the 2013 Innovation Challenge, ASU’s Changemaker Central’s social entrepreneurship competition.
“Changemaker Central also encouraged all Innovation Challenge winners to apply to Clinton Global Initiative University’s 2013 meeting in St. Louis, and offered to pay for travel expenses for selected teams,” Patel said. “We applied to CGI U, were selected and flown to St. Louis to participate in the 2013 CGI U conference.”
Patel said attending the CGI U meeting was one of the most inspiring experiences the HydroGene team has had.
“Imagine being in the same room as some of the world’s smartest and influential people,” he said. “It was amazing to meet and exchange ideas with people who are working hard to develop solutions that will address global challenges related to poverty, education and health care.
“We had the opportunity to meet with Gary White, founder of the nonprofit organization water.org, that provides millions around the globe access to safe water and sanitation. We also met with folks who are working in India and Africa to provide safe drinking water to people in need.”
So far the HydroGene team has raised $20,000 in seed funds through ASU entrepreneurship programs, such as Innovation Challenge and the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. In addition to developing a biosensor to detect water contamination, the startup is also working on a rapid screening process to prevent distribution of contaminated food in the developed world.
“An event like CGI U is something that most students don’t have the opportunity to experience during his or her college career,” he said. “It is a great place to generate and refine ideas, and get inspired. Many college students aren’t sure of their path in life, so CGI U is a great way to engage with others as a volunteer or participant, find out what you are passionate about and answer your calling.”