How One Start-up Aims to Save the World With Tubes
BY John Brandon
Meet a Chile-based start-up with grand ambitions: bringing fresh water to developing cities faster and more cheaply than ever before.
TOHL's system delivers fresh water via a flexible tube pulled by a helicopter.
Most companies start out with a mission a little less epic than saving the world. Not this start-up. Atlanta-based TOHL (which stands for Tubing Operations for Humanitarian Logistics) wants to save the world by delivering clean water to people in need. And it has a simple--but innovative--idea to do exactly that.
The for-profit company has developed a transportable water pipeline made of a tube wrapped around a coil. A helicopter strings the pipeline from a local water supply across the landscape to reach a nearby city. The result is a water delivery system that's cheaper and faster to install than most conventional methods. I spoke with President and Director of Operations Benjamin Cohen to find out more about how it works.
How did you get the idea for the company? The concept behind TOHL originated in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Apoorv Sinha [our VP of research and development] learned of the scale of the disaster and came up with the idea using tubing, similar to the coiled tubing used in the oil and gas sector, to transport water rapidly over large distances. The idea became more detailed and transformed into a full-scale business with crucial input from myself and Dr. Matthew Realff, an associate professor at Georgia Tech's chemical engineering school. The lag in the relief operations that followed the Haiti disaster was pivotal in the conception of the idea.
What's innovative about TOHL's system? Its inherent simplicity means we can install it in a variety of different terrains and operating conditions. We can establish logistical supply lines rapidly after an earthquake or other disaster, in war zones where short-distance supply lines are required--there are many, many more applications all over the world. Plus, it's cost-effective for mobile infrastructure applications, permanent applications, and temporary applications. It's a revolutionary and disruptive technique.
But helicopters? Isn't that expensive? Helicopters are only one installation method. Our large spools can also be loaded on trucks. But, helicopters are certainly the most versatile. They can easily traverse virtually any type of terrain. Plus, they can hover/stall in the air and move in any both slowly and quickly. In the future, TOHL will use HAVs (hybrid air vehicles), which offer an operational load capacity multiple times larger than helicopters can presently. Helicopters are expensive, but they are only used for a few minutes during the installation. It is much more expensive to install [pipeline welds] every 10 meters.
Where did you look for funding? An initial $40,000 came from Start-Up Chile, a program that is run by the investment arm of the Chilean government. A small-scale crowdfunding campaign (about $6,000) on Indiegogo helped us reached liquidity. We needed support to bootstrap what had previously been an idea on paper and turn it into a working prototype to demonstrate its functionality to our clients. Neither funding source took equity from TOHL.
Why start this company Chile? We knew of the ripe economic and business environment in Chile, and the fact that demand would be big. There are many earthquakes, many rural communities without a continuous supply of water, a huge mining industry, and lots of agricultural droughts and forest fires. Also, having worked in Chile previously, two of our team members are fluent in Spanish and familiar with the business and NGO ecosystem. We considered doing this in the U.S., but everyone told us that there was no demand for it. No one was willing to think differently about installing pipelines.
How long did it take to get the ball (or tube) rolling? The idea had been on paper for more than a year. Once we received funding and could transfer the idea into a reality, I immediately left my job in the states and moved to Chile. It took under three months from receiving funding and landing on the ground in Chile to complete the actual installation you see in the video, incorporate, file a provisional patent, etc. Now we have four pending sales in Chile.
What have been your biggest challenges? I don't know Spanish, so I have to communicate through a translator. And the culture in Chile is much slower than what we are used to--people are consistently late to meetings. Initially it was hard to find a tubing manufacturer that would make one large piece of tubing. Now the challenge is keeping up with demand--we're having trouble growing our team fast enough to keep up. So, in the meantime I'm doing the job of lawyer, marketing person, finance person, salesman, engineer, and public relations rep. I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Say I'm an entrepreneur who wants to change the world. What do I need to know? Being passionate about something big and committing 100% is the only way. If you fail, at least you endeavored at a brilliant undertaking; if you succeed, you have changed the world forever. We have succeeded, and are changing the way everyone thinks about pipelines around world.