Ryan Beltrán founded Elequa, a clean water tech startup, in 2013 to share an innovation that could help cut costs and increase access to clean water: electrocoagulation purification.
When electricity flows through water, charged ions can condense or coagulate some contaminants. Coagulated particles separate from the water and are then much easier to filter out. This purifies some harsh pollutants such as arsenic and lead.
The San Antonio-based startup found early success participating in the Cleantech Open Sustainability accelerator program in 2013 and winning its regional accelerator contest. Beltrán then won the 2014 SA Current Inventor of the Year and presented at PechaKucha.
One of Elequa’s now board members, Mitch Hagney of Local Sprout, mentioned that the startup’s values aligned well with a nonprofit model. This new focus changed the course of Elequa. For the past few years, Elequa has been tapping into its educational potential and pivoting to a nonprofit model.
Instead of tackling all the different contaminated water types, Elequa is now crowdsourcing the problem areas as challenges with inherent educational value. Elequa developed Make Water, a problem-based learning program that gave students coagulator kits to test, modify, and learn from.
Each season revolves around the school year, with YouTube episodes to introduce participants to the program and set a pace for them to take on challenges. Participants create a team, build a coagulator kit, and pick a challenge that aligns with a passion and also improves the kit or process in some way. They then share their findings with the community, and the kit evolves, giving them a sense of accomplishment.
The kit used in the Make Water program was developed when Beltrán began collaborating with 10BitWorks Makerspace, with the help of Les Hall, an engineer there. They dubbed the purification prototype “Coagulators.” Beltrán saw the potential of these kits to facilitate collaborative, real-world problem-solving that allowed anyone to test the process themselves by building a kit and sharing the results.
Beltrán poured his vision into a short film that won the Water, TX film contest. Then Beltrán, accompanied by Lynne Christopher, of SAWS, was invited to the White House Water Summit in 2016. Chief Technology Officer to President Obama, Megan Smith, admired the program and offered advice for connecting with student robotics teams. From there, Elequa’s relationship with SAWS and its education department grew.
In the first season of Make Water, students used their particular interests and expertise to develop more eco-friendly 3D printed lids, attachable solar panels, and stories for the Make Water Youtube channel. One team won the Odessa Regional Texas Science Fair and went on to compete internationally at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Another student came back from a failing grade because of the program. Students felt proud of their work, which opened their eyes to their own potential to do good for the world.
In the following seasons, the nonprofit gained momentum following a trip to Colombia to work with impoverished communities, an outreach effort in Flint, Michigan, and an AJ+ video spot. Students continued to innovate, including two separate student teams that designed water sensors to read water total dissolved solids (TDS) levels, the first indicator of pollution in water. TDS sensors can cost up to hundreds of dollars in the current market, and students developed sensors that cost a fraction of that. A&M AgriLife partnered with Elequa last year to create a curriculum for the kits, and on Earth Day this year, Elequa officially became a nonprofit.
The organization also increased its focus on working with underserved community high school teams in San Antonio. The disparity in education in San Antonio is large, and the Make Water program gives educators the ability to teach with minimal cost by inspiring and utilizing the students’ own passion. Teachers can also sign up on the Make Water waitlist for a free kit.
BiblioTech’s recent partnership with the program provides a local space for Make Water workshops and a sponsorship from H-E-B Tournament of Champions helps Make Water sustain itself. The program introduces students with limited opportunities to a field that has a high demand for new minds. The water industry is reaching a “Silver Tsunami” as baby boomers retire and the need for creative, bright students is greater now than ever.
Make Water crossed continents as a team of students in Bolivia asked if Beltrán could help them bring the kit and curriculum to students in areas with contaminated water. This opened up collaborative challenges with students locally and abroad. The kits inspire students to be active learners and global citizens and are now helping the water purification technology get to an area that needs it, fulfilling the potential Beltrán had seen in the technology from the start.
Elequa is holding a fundraiser at Still Golden this Thursday, August 15th. The proceeds from the special water-themed drink menu will go toward providing housing and support to the Bolivia program, with any extra funding to help Elequa send free kits to local teachers on the Make Water waitlist.