How two UAlberta researchers are introducing water testing 'in a box' to Canada's rural market

Roshan Water Solutions was born out of UAlberta student research, accelerated by mentorship and supported by new streams of funding.

The last thing small-town utility officers and farmers across Canada take for granted is clean water.

But the current process for testing town water, well water and other livestock water supply is cumbersome and inefficient.

"Samples are collected and in some cases driven to a lab that is far away, and then the processing itself often takes two days," said Parmiss Mojir Shaibani, a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Alberta's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The delay always poses risk, she explained.

"What if the water is unhealthy to drink? Over that period of time, people and animals drinking it could become sick."

Mojir Shaibani-who spent much of her U of A materials engineering PhD researching clean water testing technology-cares deeply about ensuring clean drinking water for people around the world, including those in many communities across Canada who do not have access to it.

"Starting this business isn't just about making money. We want to make a difference in people's lives, beginning with improving the water safety management here in Canada," she said.

The "we" includes her husband, Amirreza Sohrabi, who also spent most of his PhD in materials engineering at the U of A studying treatment-focused clean water solutions. The pair, who moved from Iran to Edmonton in 2010 for their graduate studies, decided midway through their third year to combine their shared passion for clean water, as well as her water testing and his water treatment innovations, into one business.

Roshan Water Solutions was finally launched in early 2017, with a focus on its first product, a handheld water testing sensor.

The startup's rapid rate of acceleration-the duo has got a prototype almost completed and are ready to do market testing-isn't just thanks to an innovative product, but also the couple's eminent coachability and some unique funding opportunities.

Market need + smart idea = potential

Any great business must start with a need and a good solution, said Noreen Hoskins, director of eHUB, the U of A's entrepreneurship centre.

"And Roshan's water testing technology fills a huge need. The handheld sensor tests water on site for E. coli, eliminating the risk of human error, extensive transport of samples and the costs municipalities and companies carry in order to conduct environmental assessments."

Hoskins likens the concept to an all-in-one solution, or water testing "in a box."

Roshan is also tapping into a huge market, added Hoskins. "They've solved a problem that involves the vastness of the land mass we are dealing with here in Canada."

Mojir Shaibani pointed out that there is nothing quite like the sensor available in Canada. Water is fed into the portable device, and if E. coli is present, a byproduct changes the pH balance. Within one hour, the device indicates whether water samples are safe or unsafe, which is a significant improvement over current methods which take one to two days.

"We haven't reinvented the wheel here but we have combined nanotechnology with existing technology to allow the process to be even more sensitive, and to occur within one hour's time on site," explained Mojir Shaibani.

"The device is designed to be simple to use and does not require any technical training," she added.

Once their prototype is completed, their initial target market is water testing agencies and engineers in rural communities, but they also intend to sell the device to individual rural businesses, such as farmers and homeowners who live on well systems.

"We've already had a lot of interest. The Government of Alberta has approached us to ask about it, as have prospects who found us through our website," said Sohrabi.

He is quick to point out that they would be two years behind where they are now without the help of eHUB, industry mentors and unique funding opportunities.

Why mentors matter

"We met some valuable mentors through eHUB's Accelerate program, who gave us helpful feedback. They helped us see we needed to go back to our original prototype to make modifications," explained Sohrabi.

Through the Accelerate program, high-potential companies are exposed to panels of industry leaders who provide specific advice about the product or service. Hoskins said it doesn't surprise her that two of the mentors are still helping out the pair.

"Amir and Parmiss came to eHUB with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, but their greatest strength is their coachability. They have expressed a vision of where they want to take their company, but they also assimilate advice and translate that into action."

Sohrabi credits eHUB for giving them the opportunity to grow their professional network, which he said grew a hundredfold.

"That will help us get connected with communities who could become customers. Also, the culture at the Faculty of Engineering inspired us early on. They encourage students to think about applying skills in entrepreneurial ways. eHUB was an important bridge to switch from the technical side to learn about the business side of things."

Tapping into funding support

Finding a lab was a top priority for the newly born company in January 2017. "But we knew that rent for a lab would cost us $3,000 a month. We didn't have the money," said Sohrabi.

And though they'd received much-needed financial support from the Rural eHUB funding program, they would need a lot more to revise and perfect their water sensor design and get it off the ground.

So they hunted around and found a unique funding opportunity with Mitacs-a national research organization that manages and funds training research programs. It's piloting a program, Entrepreneur Accelerate, that supports students who want to work on their own company.

Sohrabi and Mojir Shaibani have been hired on as post-doctoral research fellows for two years in the U of A's Advanced Water Research Lab, supervised by mechanical engineering assistant professor Mohtada Sadrzadeh.

Mitacs pays for half of their stipend, the pair pays for the other half, and the U of A supports their transition from academic endeavours into the business world by supplying much-needed infrastructure.

"Without this special arrangement, I'm not sure we could dedicate ourselves to our business or be progressing at the pace we are," said Mojir Shaibani.

As the couple puts in 13- to 14-hour days, they stay motivated by keeping their eye on the long-term goal.

"We'd like to have a full-scale operation with 30 employees in 10 years," said Sohrabi, only to be interrupted by Mojir Shaibani. "Five years! We want to keep growing and expand our products, and find an investor at the right time.

"It's not just about business for us," she added. "It's about helping to ensure clean drinking water."