Aqus Water has engineered a tool that helps filter water without the need of pumps, electricity, chemicals, or replacements. Since their initiation, Aqus has provided an easy and affordable solution to accessing clean drinking water in 17 countries. I sat down with Founder and CEO, Kevin Kassel (USC undergraduate Marshall Student ‘17) to discuss how he’s created a sustainable solution to the water crises in developing nations worldwide.
Developing a Startup out of a Foundation
At the Tree Shade Primary School, a young girl learns about the importance of drinking clean water.
While volunteering in Ecuador eight years ago, Kevin unknowingly took his first step towards creating his own company. During his time there, Kevin served as a mentor for primary school students, and upon his departure back to the states tragically learned that one of his students from the school he taught at had died due to dysentery, a disease caused by unsafe drinking water. Being a boy scout his whole life, Kevin knew that this death could have been easily prevented by using proper camping tools — specifically, water filters. For months afterward, Kevin was plagued with the desire to take action against the tragedies resulting from unsafe drinking water.
In high school, Kevin took steps in starting his own foundation to donate camping filters and increase access to clean water across the world. Through this initiative, he was able to impact thirty countries and over twenty thousand people in the span of five years. However, as he worked directly with the people he was impacting, Kevin realized that there was no product in the market that provided an affordable and large scale solution for this crisis. The companies that were producing filtration systems were too expensive, non-targeted, and unsustainable. Taking matters in his own hands, in his junior year at USC he engineered his experience from the foundation into starting Aqus Water.
The Need for a New Way of Accessing Clean Water
Access to clean water is a fundamental human right that is considered rudimentary for a healthy community. An astonishing four billion people rely on drinking from water sources that are dirty, boiled or bottled. One person on average requires 20 to 50 liters of water per day for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Communities that have polluted water are endangered by diseases that are present in the water. Boiled water releases harmful CO2 molecules in the air, and bottled water produces an overabundance of waste. With access clean water, communities are healthier and economically sustainable. Aqus Water has helped communities and villages that lack access to clean water to rise of out poverty and strengthen their communities through the use of the Aqus Water Filter.
“Currently, four billion people rely on dirty, bottled, or boiled water.”
– Kevin Kassel, CEO & Founder
A Sustainable, Long-Term Solution
Aqus Water provides an affordable and reliable solution without the usage of pumps, electricity, or chemicals. With one filter priced at fifty dollars, Aqus Filter lasts three years and is able to filter out 350 gallons of water for over 50 people a day. These features enable Aqus Water to become a more permanent solution in contrast to their competitors who are providing short-term options. Furthermore, the Aqus Water Filter is 1/10th of the price of pre-existing solutions, allowing Aqus to be in the affordable range of the market.
The Aqus Water Filter
The Water Filter Market
The water filter business is expected to grow to $45.3 billion by 2022, driven by factors such as increasing levels of water and air pollution in developing nations. As these countries industrialize, the need for water filters will help stimulate increased demand through the next few years.
Aqus Water is a gravity-based water filter that differentiates from competitors by offering to different end users in other geographical regions. Marketed specifically towards developing countries as a tool for both recreational and commercial use, they are up against other companies tackling the clean water issue in these areas. LifeStraw, a small, tube-shaped filter that purifies water as you drink, similarly markets to third world regions but targets the individual user rather than broader communities. Another popular method for filtering water in these geographical regions is the usage of ceramic filtration, which gained high adoption in Cambodia for filtrating bacteria and protozoa. These filters are often made by clay pots and work by collecting debris from its porous holes. However, this method is not effective for protection against viruses due to the lack of chlorine residual protection and the microscopic nature of these viruses allowing them to seep through.
Fighting through Initial Product-To-Market Darkness
During the years of heading a foundation, Kevin discovered the need for a more innovative filter. However, his first challenge proved to be the greatest: shifting from a foundation to a business. To start, Kevin spoke to thousands of potential customers to understand the demand for a product that did not already exist in the market, a water filter capable of filtering large quantities. The existing solutions that filtered mass amounts of water costs hundreds of dollars and are marketed toward affluent communities and households. Since there were no pre-existing affordable alternatives that filtered mass amounts of water for third world countries, navigating who the target market was and what Aqus Water should focus on was Kassel’s biggest challenge in the pre-seed process.
“Coming in as a Westerner and someone who didn’t grow up in any of these countries, trying to find our target audience is easier when we are immersed in the community.”
– Kevin Kassel, CEO & Founder
Success in the Business World
In his last two years researching and prototyping at USC, Kevin was able to participate in over ten different incubators. Aqus Water was a finalist in the Greif Center’s New Venture Seed competition as well as the Marshall Innovation Coast Competition. In his graduating summer, Aqus Water was one of nine companies participating in the Vatican Incubator, completing the accelerator with the support of global investors and equity investment.
A milestone in the initial stages of the company, Aqus Water’s participation in the 11th Annual USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase awarded Kevin wide publicity and five thousand dollars towards building the company. In his Panama accelerator pitch, Kevin won the showcase which led to his future partnership with the Panama government. Kevin was contacted by the government when they read an article about Aqus Water and called him up to work on to distributing the filters across Panama. Since then, Aqus Water has contracted new partnerships with governments, NGOs, banks (Ex. UNICEF) to finance filters in East Africa. Despite operating in a saturated market, by solidifying partnerships with these local governments Aqus is able to integrate itself as a key player in finding a solution to the water crisis.
Kevin Kassel pitching the Aqus Filter at USC Steven Student Innovator Showcase
Kevin has made the move to Uganda and periodically visits Kenya in order to further develop and support his company closer to the source.
“Coming in as a Westerner and someone who didn’t grow up in any of these countries, finding our target audience has become easier when we are immersed in the community.”
– Kevin Kassel, CEO & Founder
There is a full-time team where Kevin in Uganda is working on fully engaging within the community. Going back and forth from Uganda and Kenya, Kevin has been able to see the impact first-hand. These customers are given the capacity to generate supplemental income by purchasing this product; they can become water entrepreneurs by using the product to sell water at their restaurants or businesses. With the opportunity given to rising water entrepreneurs, the filters of Aqus Water further adds to the health and economy of developing area. Customers feel that Aqus Water is really making an impact within their communities.
“Out of 300 students, we used to suffer from 100-150 cases of waterborne disease each and every year. We have not suffered a single case since we started using the filter.”
– Aqus Water Filter user
CEO/Co-founder of Mandulis Energy using his Aquasafe Filter to filter water from the Aswa River, in northern Uganda
Aqus Water is in a unique position where they are not a charity, but rather providing a product where customers are able to use these filters for themselves, families, and businesses within their communities. Currently, the Aqus Water team is partnering with banks in Kenya to help small local business owners finance these water filters. Kevin’s bold move to relocate to Africa brings new potential for the company’s future partnerships and growth with its target consumers.