How Acuva balances global growth with local impact to provide clean drinking water

Acuva’s handheld LED-UV lights purify water around the world (and in Canada).

Canada is privileged to have abundant clean drinking water, but that’s not the case globally. Nearly one-third of people worldwide don’t have access to clean drinking water due to microbes and other contaminants, a problem that Manoj Singh thinks he can solve with technology.

In effect, the technology leaves viruses “biologically invalidated,” meaning they can’t reproduce or cause harm to humans.

Singh founded Acuva in 2014 with a mission to enable clean drinking water using technology and so far he’s secured $8.4 million in growth financing to do it.

Speaking with BetaKit, Singh shared Acuva’s growth story, how he’s prioritizing local impact while growing globally, and the challenges the company has faced scaling in Canada.

Clean water without chemicals

Water cleaning and purification happen in two steps. First, you have to remove any sediments. Singh said this can be done with filtration systems and is fairly commoditized. The second, more complex process, is purification, which removes any bacteria or microbes that aren’t visible to the eye but can cause illness or even death if ingested. Traditionally, this is done with chemicals such as chlorine but Singh said the chemical approach has two major issues: chlorine doesn’t kill everything, and too much chlorine has its own human and environmental risk factors.

Thinking more deeply about the second step (purification), Singh realized it was a technology, not a chemical problem.

“There’s no technology that can make [water purification] work in the environment and infrastructure where most of the population resides,” Singh said.

This is the challenge Singh is overcoming with Acuva, a commercialized business based on research conducted at the University of British Columbia. Instead of using chemicals, Acuva’s products use LED UV-purification. In short, UV-based solutions are more powerful than chemicals because UV rays impact all beings (from microbes to humans) on a cellular level.

“UV radiation disintegrates the DNA or RNA of the bacteria and viruses,” said Singh.

In effect, the technology leaves viruses “biologically invalidated,” meaning they can’t reproduce or cause harm to humans. Acuva’s solutions are also portable, don’t rely on grid electricity or a central water supply, and don’t need any maintenance, according to Singh, which means they can operate in remote areas of the world that desperately need this kind of resource.

“It can give you the purest water at your doorstep without worrying about it,” said Singh.

Cleaning Canada’s water, too

After Singh started the business, he had to think about scaling, and a big part of the company’s initial support came from Innovate BC: Acuva won the inaugural Ignite Award in 2018, which included $300,000 in funding to begin commercializing.

“Innovate BC has been extremely instrumental in supporting this tech’s growth,” said Singh.

The result in 2020 was a commercial prototype of Acuva’s filtration system. The company then went through the Innovate BC Fast Pilot Program, launched in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), in late 2020 and early 2021 to accelerate its production and move from pilot to distribution. Acuva is currently piloting its handheld purifying device in different BC Indigenous communities, the results of which will hopefully mean consistent clean water access. While the majority of Canadians have regular access to clean drinking water, over 30 long-term drinking water advisories are still active in communities across the country.

“We want to take this tech and product to a level where all those communities where water is a problem because infrastructure doesn’t exist or existing tech or solutions cannot be maintained properly,” said Singh.

In addition to rural and Indigenous communities in Canada, Acuva is supporting communities globally. The company already has 55 people across offices in the US, Germany, China, and India, and Singh is thinking about how different parts of the world leverage water purification. In Asia and India, for example, there’s a deep need for inexpensive purification devices because drinking water there is currently unsafe, but those communities are very price sensitive.

In North America and the European Union, purified water is typically a lifestyle luxury (since those areas generally have safe drinking water), meaning Acuva needs to build high-flow modules for condo buildings and easily adaptable models for in-home use. Within rural North America specifically, the RV market is a huge segment of people who don’t have ready access to clean drinking water at all times.

“At Innovate BC we are extremely proud of Acuva.” says Tomica Divic, VP of Operations at Innovate BC. “In a time where climate change and equitable access to drinking water are at the forefront, scaling these types of sustainable homegrown solutions are essential to economic and sustainable growth for British Columbia.”

“We’re growing a Canadian tech company to solve a global problem,” said Singh.

Learn more about Innovate BC and their programs here.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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