Will new features and pumped-up distribution enable a niche product to reach the masses?
Developed by a 15-person biotech company called Silver Lake Research, Watersafe is an at-home tap-water-testing kit now sold in 3,000 retail stores nationwide. The science behind the product is new, and Silver Lake, which is based in Monrovia, Calif., has been awarded three patents on it. But even more revolutionary than the product itself (after all, water-testing products have been around for some time) is the company's attempt to take a specialty-store product and transform it into lowest-common-denominator supermarket merchandise. An indication that Silver Lake may be succeeding came in July, when Watersafe was picked up for distribution by the Kroger grocery empire.
The technical challenges that Silver Lake had to tackle to bring about the identity shift bordered on the existential. For starters, U.S. geography dictates that a mass-market product be multifunctional. "A person in Manhattan might worry about lead in their water, while a person in Omaha worries about agricultural pesticides," explains Tom Round, Silver Lake's vice-president. "We designed our product so it would have equal appeal in urban and rural areas." At the same time, Watersafe had to be fast acting, because consumers demand quick results. It had to be compact enough to fit in the tight shelf space reserved for impulse buys at the supermarket. And it had to be so simple that it "could be used by an illiterate person," founder and CEO Mark Geisberg crudely asserts.
If A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich freaked you out, this home test kit is made for you.
Watersafe meets all those requirements. It can detect seven types of contaminants, from chlorine to traces of bacteria like E. coli. Yet the box it comes in is unintimidatingly small -- about the size of a DVD. All the tests can be conducted in 10 minutes, and all render their results in an obvious, color-coded way reminiscent of a standard at-home pregnancy test.
It is too soon to determine if the product is performing well on Kroger's mass-market shelves, and Geisberg declines to share sales figures, though he does claim that Watersafe's revenues will triple this year. Demand has been especially strong in the drought-stricken Middle Atlantic states, where, he explains, local news coverage about cities' "tapping secondary reservoirs that might not have been tested much in recent years" has heightened residents' concerns.
Drought or no, Silver Lake plans to take advantage of the growing mainstream acceptance of what was once a niche trend: consumer interest in the purity of consumables. To that end, the company has developed sister product lines for Watersafe -- one for meat, another for milk. Those, however, are designed for agricultural and veterinary use, so don't expect to find them at Kroger. At least not yet.