In the time it takes you to read this article, a child somewhere will die of a waterborne disease. That is the battle three alumni from the National University of Singapore (NUS) is fighting on behalf of the 780 million people around the world who live without access to clean drinking water.
Founded in 2014, WateROAM is a social enterprise that provides durable and affordable water filters designed for humanitarian use. It is the brainchild of Lim Chong Tee, David Pong, and Vincent Loka. Their mission – to ensure everyone has access to clean water.
Despite coming from radically different backgrounds and having different motivations, the three young men are united in their ambitions.
For 25-year-old chief marketing officer Chong Tee, this motivation came from a deeply personal experience. He said: “After junior college, I went on a community outreach programme to teach English in Cambodia. In one of their rural communities, I saw a child scooping and drinking water that was the colour of mud.”
He quickly realised that the bottled water he was carrying was a luxury that the locals simply could not afford.
After witnessing whole villages ravaged by chronic diarrhoea caused by dirty water, Chong Tee returned to NUS with his heart set on Environmental Engineering, as he was determined to put his technical ingenuity to work on a worthy cause.
At a humanitarian water filtration design competition held in school, he met his co-founder Vincent, an Indonesian native who shared his charitable passion. Hailing from Medan in North Sumatra, Vincent, 23, is a fellow dreamer who wants to end his country’s reliance on expensive bottled water.
“I want to contribute to my country one day,” he said. “In Indonesia, the tap water in our homes is sometimes dirty and most people just ended up buying bottled water.”
Together, the two engineers started their designs for a portable, lightweight filter that anyone can use. However, neither of them had enough experience to turn their tech savviness into a viable enterprise.
Fortunately, NUS and PUB had jointly organised a HydroPreneur Programme to bring the brightest, young technological and business minds together to create water solutions. At the event, they found the final piece of their puzzle – David, a student from NUS Business School and a hardened veteran of the startup lifestyle.
“When my first startup closed down, I questioned if it was all about the dollars and cents. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to work on two causes: The first is Singapore’s ageing population; the second, water,” said 27-year-old David.
On that fateful day, WateROAM was born and the boys began the arduous journey to turn their dreams into reality.
“Building the water filtration system was hard, getting funding was hard...actually, everything was very hard,” Chong Tee said with a laugh, when asked to describe the entrepreneurial journey.
Even with startup exposure and tech expertise under their belts, the boys still lacked experience in various areas ranging from legal matters to commercial awareness.
“Fortunately, NUS Enterprise was on hand to provide assistance,” said Chong Tee. “We have Kris Childress, our mentor-in-residence, who is always very patient to sit through our pitching presentations and give us helpful advice on the commercial landscape.”
While Kris was busy refining David and Chong Tee’s marketing skills, Vincent sought help from Professor Ng How Yong of the university’s engineering department. Having worked with a variety of instruments and systems over his career, Prof Ng’s experience sped up the design process because he could tell what would work and what would not.
"He was also able to open many doors for us," Vincent said with a grateful smile.
Thanks to a multi-disciplinary education at NUS, their horizons were broadened significantly.
An engineering student by day, Chong Tee also learnt about water problems by attending geography and technopreneur modules outside of his faculty.
“Engineering teaches you how to build the filter, but geography will teach you about the markets and countries where there is a real need for it.”
Today, this knowledge has transformed the lives of thousands through a water filter technology that provides clean drinking water to villagers around the region. From nearby Malaysia to the mountains of Nepal, they are found in schools, homes, village centres and even in an orphanage in Bintan where the children had been enduring contaminated water for more than a year.
Despite their innovation finding fame via The Straits Times and The Huffington Post, the boys are not resting on their laurels. David has started working on a new scheme to find localised business partners while Vincent is pondering the problem of arsenic-tainted groundwater.
Now, surely that is a cause that we can all raise our glasses to.