When environmental engineer Eric Li launched his first invention on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, he didn’t expect money to pour in from backers so quickly. In just 12 hours, his crowdfunding campaign for Ecomo, a “smart” bottle that filters and tests water — literally with a twist — was fully funded.
The campaign sailed past its modest $50,000 goal and is now nearing a $237,000 haul, with upwards of 1,200 backers and climbing. There are still 25 days to go in the funding cycle.
“I thought we would reach our goal, but not even close to this fast,” he tells Free Enterprise.
The first-time entrepreneur’s ambitious mission, as he describes it, is to “provide everyone in the world concerned with the safety of their drinking water a convenient, portable tool with which to test and purify their water at any time, anywhere – whether they’re hiking, running or working in the office.”
Equipped with a highly absorbent, replaceable carbon filter, a nano-fiber membrane, and an ion-exchange fiber element, Li and his cofounders — electrical engineer George Chen, mechanical engineer Yuan Cao, and software engineer Tianyi Chen, all longtime friends and associates of Li’s — claim the sleek, $129 metal bottle not only tests water for contaminants, it purifies it, too. Its three-part advanced filtration system is designed to detect and reduce contaminants including: pesticides, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, bacteria, along with a host of potentially hazardous heavy metals, such as lead and mercury.
To filter the water inside the bottle, users simply twist its rotating base. “The idea is similar to a Brita water filter, but the water is instantly pushed up through the filter with force,” Li says. “That way, you don’t have to wait for the water to slowly drip down through it, like you would with a Brita.” To quality test the water, users shake the bottle twice. A message indicating how safe the water is to drink (or not) appears on a companion Ecomo smartphone app, and on the LED screen of an included Fitbit-like activity tracker wristband.
With lead water contamination top of mind for many Americans in the wake of the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, and with mounting concerns about water pollution across the globe, Li and his team felt the time was right to launch Ecomo. Li, who earned his Ph.D. at Carnegie-Mellon University and currently bases his operation not far from Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., has worked to take his creation from idea to functional prototype since June 2014. So far, he has developed four iterations of the prototype.
Li’s passion for bringing a product like Ecomo to consumers is about more than just business. It’s part of a personal mission.
“I’m originally from China,” Li says, “and some of my family members there are battling cancer, which we think is probably related to the poor water quality where they live. I want to protect others from similar situations.”
He also gleaned some interesting – and, for many office workers, highly relatable – inspiration from his wife, who’s also an environmental engineer. “She sits in front of her computer working for eight hours straight and doesn’t so much as drink a sip of water in that time,” he says. “My goal is to help her remember to take breaks to hydrate, to take care of herself.”
So, to help people like his wife remember to drink enough water, Li and his team also designed their “smart” bottle to track daily water intake. To do this, the bottle measures the volume of water within itself throughout the day. Working in concert with the app and wristband, the Ecomo system dispatches friendly reminders to sip more water.
In addition to his aims of making water safer to drink and promoting healthful hydration, Li hopes to significantly reduce plastic water bottle waste through the use of his reusable receptacle.
“We’re trying to help people live healthier lives and, at the same time, to be less wasteful, and that’s something I feel really good about,” he says. “It’s the most enjoyable part of being an entrepreneur for me so far. I love to build things that solve everyday problems that people struggle with, and quick access to clean water is one of the most important challenges we face today.”
As for what Li plans to do with the money Ecomo raises on Kickstarter, he says the funds will be used to pay for the startup’s first water bottle production run – and toward that production run only. After all, Li’s company, while still quite new on the crowded Silicon Valley startup scene, isn’t completely strapped for cash. Ecomo already closed $1 million in venture capital, some of which funded several key aspects of getting the business off the ground, including product design, marketing, and hiring a small team of employees.
Now, it’s time to focus on bringing that sophisticated prototype to market.
“We allowed ourselves to celebrate our Kickstarter victory for one day and one day only,” he says. “Next, we focus on the hard work – of manufacturing the product and actually delivering it to our supporters.”