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SPIE Professional July 2011

Thirst for the Sun

By Natalie Antal

image for Thirst for the Sun: Photonics for a better world

What happens when two business students from Chile, a "Lost Boy" of Sudan, and an optical engineering student get together?

In Duncan Moore's class in technical entrepreneurship, one group developed a business plan for a new company called SunDrop that aims to build inexpensive solar water pumps to bring drinking water and irrigation to drought-prone developing regions of South America, Africa, and elsewhere.

This serendipitous meeting occurred this spring at the University of Rochester, one of a growing number of academic institutions that offer entrepreneurial instruction to graduate students in science and engineering fields.

Students enrolled in these courses and programs aren't necessarily out to make a personal fortune. Instead, they are applying what they learn to make the world a better place.

The SunDrop business partners began their collaboration in January as part of an assignment in the class taught by Moore, vice provost for entrepreneurship and the Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Professor of Optical Engineering. The interdisciplinary course pairs students from the Simon Graduate School of Business with engineering grad students to develop a technical business plan.

Awak Malith and Dan Williams 
Awak Malith, left, and Daniel Williams collaborated on the project at University of Rochester.

Chilean business students Roberto Chavarria, a civil engineer, and Paul Oyaneder, who has a background in social psychology, teamed up with Daniel Williams, a third-year doctoral student at the UR Institute of Optics, and Awak Malith, who fled war-torn Sudan along with thousands of other young boys in the 1980s.

Williams, the team's technical leader, proposed two potential designs for a solar-powered water pump that could be deployed in Chile, Sudan, or any desert area with existing equipment for pumping and storing water and little or no access to electricity.

 Dan Williams in the optics lab
Daniel Williams in the optics lab.
PV panels power pump

"This technology is designed to be deployed in off-grid locations in a desert environment," says Williams who has a BS degree in math and physics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and whose research in Rochester involves the design and testing of optics for concentrating photovoltaic systems.

Both designs for the solar water pump are relatively simple, he says, employing PV panels to generate electricity that could pump water into a large storage container. One system provides enough water for 750 head of cattle, or 11,000 gallons per day. A second design will sustain the drinking needs of about 50 people, generating 3000 gallons per day.

People in desert areas now must pump water from underground aquifers by hand or use diesel- or gasoline-powered generators to run the pumps.

"Although, it will probably be after my lifetime, I look forward to the day when the world does not heavily depend on fossil fuels," Williams says. "I firmly believe that this will help mitigate many global problems, and my dream is to help (even if only a little) create such a world."

The solar photovoltaic panel array could provide enough electricity for the water pump to run for about 6-8 hours each day. Water pumped into the storage reservoirs would then be used on an as-needed basis.

"The idea of combining a photovoltaic system with a water pump to be used in a developing arid country shows how a team of students with diverse backgrounds can create innovative solutions to a world problem," Moore, an SPIE Fellow, says with pride.

Sudanese farmers need water

Malith, the "Lost Boy" of Sudan who is a student in the university's new technical entrepreneurship and management (TEAM) master's program, believes the pump can help people in his home country.

"An electric grid and power-generation technology are limited or non-existent in much of Sudan," he says. "The cost to acquire a kWh of power from the grid is exorbitant compared to getting it from solar panels."

 Awak Malith on a visit to Sudan
Awak Malith (center), on a visit to Sudan in the summer of 2010.

In Sudan's rural southern region where Malith was born in 1978, there are long periods of sunlight during the dry season, late January to early May. Farmers there lose many cattle due to drought. Some households lose as many as 10 cows in one season, according to Malith.

Since no electrical infrastructure exists there, a solar-powered pump would be ideal to supply water for drinking and irrigation.

"Lost Boy" wants to help

Malith's childhood memories are infused with a civil war that has embroiled Sudan for decades. He remembers falling asleep to the sounds of bombs and gunfire. He became separated from his family during his 1987 escape — on foot — to Ethiopia as a boy.

World aid organizations estimate that of an estimated 30,000 Sudanese boys who walked to Ethiopia and Kenya for refuge and who came to be known as the Lost Boys, only about 10,000 survived the journey.

Malith returned to Sudan in 1991 only to flee again to Kenya one year later. With help from international aid volunteers, he left Africa in 2002, settling in Upstate New York. After earning his physics degree at UR in 2006, Malith took a job as a technician at a Rochester-area optics company. In his free time, he worked to call attention to the injustices in Sudan, writing editorials and comments on news websites.

"I became an activist," he says. "I was too bothered by Sudan's problems."

Last year, Malith decided to leave his optics job to enroll in the TEAM program. He sees the program as an opportunity to learn valuable business skills to help his home country in a variety of ways.

Business plan comes together

TEAM students take half their classes in the business school, learning concepts such as accounting, finance, economics, marketing, strategy, and management. The rest of their time is spent in graduate-level engineering courses in one of eight technical concentrations, including optics, energy and the environment, and computer science.

Malith has recently founded an organization, New Sudan Aid, for Americans to invest and do business in Sudan. The organization hopes to build a medical clinic in Wunrok, Warrap State, in southern Sudan.

Last summer, he visited the village where he grew up, reuniting with his father. He also outlined his plans to a Christian pastor there and interviewed the residents.

"There are farmers but they don't have tools for modern farming," he says. "I met a brick maker who wants to mechanize his business but he has no means to do so." He is certain the brick maker, one of many small businesses springing up in Sudan, would welcome a source of cheap water-pumping equipment.

For now, Malith continues to build a network of businesspeople and technical experts who feel just as passionately about propelling Sudan into the 21st century and helping its people as he does. The water pump system is just one aspect that he plans to see through.

Help for Chile, too

Chavarria and Oyaneder, both Chilean master's students in the Global Management of Business program at the Simon School and the University of Chile, saw similar market opportunities in Chile for the photovoltaic-based system.

Oyaneder notes that the Atacama Desert is known to be the driest in the world. The proposed water-supply system could assist in the industrial development of the arid region, and it would be especially useful for mining companies, rural communities, and small farms in the northern part of Chile. Other potential clients identified in their market evaluation include the Chilean government, non-profit organizations, and private customers concerned with environmental responsibility.

Multidisciplinary team

Chavarria noted that the multidisciplinary backgrounds of the team members resulted in a comprehensive business plan to solve a known problem.

"A social psychologist, optical engineer, physicist, and civil engineer cooperated on this project," Chavarria says. "We have come up with a set of products that obtain water in places where it is currently not possible — or very expensive — permitting economic and social development in those territories."

Malith agrees that the technology will have positive effects. "The [Sudanese] people cannot go back to village life like it was before," he says. "They want jobs, money, hospitals, and schools. I believe we can help give them those."

The class assignment has yet to get beyond the business plan stage, but the SunDrop partners say they would welcome investors or others interested in putting "photonics for a better world" into action.

-Natalie Antal is editor of Innovations, an entrepreneurship newsletter at the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester.

If you would like to contact the students, write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

Ideas from Rochester's TEAM program

The Technical Entrepreneurship and Management (TEAM) master's program at the University of Rochester offers students the opportunity to look through the university's portfolio of available patents, find ones that can be turned into profitable technologies, and then develop businesses around them.

Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship Duncan Moore, one of the program's founders, believes the university has a strong obligation to encourage engineers to think like businesspeople.

The program is designed for students who have a bachelor's degree in a technical field.

TEAM students take courses from the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Simon Graduate School of Business.

Students choose from eight technical concentrations including optics, biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, energy and the environment, and mechanical engineering.

More information.

Science mixes with business in academia

Believing that optics, photonics, and other technologies cannot serve society unless they can be commercialized, many colleges and universities like the University of Rochester are creating programs that combine entrepreneurial studies with science and engineering.

Here is a sampling of the programs:

  • Boston University College of Engineering receives funding from the Kern Family Foundation for a partnership with the BU School of Management.
  • The Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy at University of California, Davis, brings business and finance leaders together with students for an intensive one-week program.
  • The Institut d'Optique in Palaiseau, France, has two programs to train engineers in business methods.
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel hosts an annual "Entrepreneurship in Photonics" course for students interested in starting up new commercial ventures.
  • The Universities of Glasgow, St. Andrews, Heriot Watt, and Strathclyde in Scotland collaborate with Stanford University and Caltech in the United States on an entrepreneurial fellowship where an early career researcher spends a year at Stanford's Photonics Research Center to develop entrepreneurial skills.

Photonics for a Better World

Photonics for a Better World series in SPIE ProfessionalDo you have a story to tell about the work that you or colleagues do to make the world a better place? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

Articles in the SPIE Photonics for a Better World series and in our blog highlight optics and photonics technologies that bring tangible gains to humanity.

Read more articles in the SPIE Professional series at spie.org/betterworld.

Join the blog discussion about the many ways that photonics are applied in creating a better world at PhotonicsforaBetterWorld.org.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201110.02

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