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UW Nonprofit Startup Making Water Safer Around the World

Written by Debra Bouchegnies / March 26, 2019

When Katya Cherukumilli, PhD, finished her research on the impact of toxic fluoride levels on drinking water in developing countries, she didn’t just want to publish her findings — she wanted to use them to help people around the world. Leveraging her environmental engineering background, she developed the now-patented Scalable and Affordable Fluoride Removal (SAFR) process to purify water with dangerous levels of fluoride. Now, she’s implementing this approach across the globe through a non-profit organization she started in 2017 called Global Water Labs.

“High levels of fluoride occur naturally in water sources around the world — and though low levels of fluoride in water are good, high levels can cause crippling bone deformities, dental problems and more,” Dr. Cherukumilli says. “At Global Water Labs, our mission is to provide clean drinking water in resource-constrained regions through technological innovation.”

In 2018, Dr. Cherukumilli came to the University of Washington to conduct her postdoctoral research on scaling and transferring low-cost drinking water treatment technologies. She’s already helping communities in Tanzania, India and Kenya improve their water quality, and is working with CoMotion to expand Global Water Labs even more.

Building a Social Enterprise with CoMotion

CoMotion has helped Global Water Labs grow in several ways: the organization won a CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund grant in 2018 and Dr. Cherukumilli says their Innovation Development Manager, Ryan Buckmaster, has been a vital resource for helping navigate funding, licensing and more. Also Dr. Cherukumilli has just became a CoMotion Commercialization Fellow, which is a program giving recent UW graduates or postdocs support for a year to continue exploring commercialization of innovations they developed.

“CoMotion has really supported my work and given me a lot of resources and help on this journey of tech transfer and implementation,” she says. “I’ve been able to learn business and design skills and apply them instantly. It’s a very unique and supportive environment.”

Growing Global Water Labs at UW and Beyond

With funding opportunities she found through CoMotion, networking at UW’s Startup Career Fair and more, Dr. Cherukumilli has recently grown Global Water Labs’ team. This group of UW students includes engineering, finance and medical students who are helping her grow the technical, business, and global health aspects of Global Water Labs.

“It’s been amazing to see [this team’s] passion for learning about global issues and tackling really difficult business and engineering challenges,” she says.