CU Doctoral Students Win $10,000 Top Prize in National Business Competition for Social Entrepreneurship

Published: April 17, 2009

For the last six years, University of Colorado at Boulder graduate students Evan Thomas and Max Gold have volunteered their time to help bring water purification systems, biogas generators and high-efficiency cooking stoves to remote villages in Rwanda with the nonprofit Engineers Without Borders-USA.

Now they hope to turn that charity into an economically sustainable enterprise through a new venture with Manna Energy Ltd. The project is the first to attempt to receive United Nations carbon emission reduction credits, or CERs, for drinking water treatment based on reduced demand for firewood as a fuel source, and one of the first applying the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism to humanitarian development.

"With EWB-CU, we gained experience with the design and implementation of technologies in Rwanda," Thomas said. "We wanted to find a way to ensure long term economic sustainability and scalability of these systems. It's exciting to see this work becoming a real enterprise, helping thousands of people in Rwanda."

The new venture won first place at Purdue University's national Idea-to-Product (I2P) Competition for Social Entrepreneurship on April 4. Teams from the University of Virginia and Brown University took second and third place, respectively.

The competition's $10,000 prize will be used to help design, install and operate water purification systems, biogas generators, and high-efficiency cook stoves to eventually benefit some 340,000 people, according to Thomas, who serves as vice president of engineering for Manna Energy. The Global Water Challenge also has provided $200,000 in seed money.

Manna Energy is still seeking $1 million from investors to pay the up-front capital costs on five systems, which will then generate the carbon credits needed to maintain the systems and expand operations over time. Over the next six years, the organization envisions deployment of 400 water purification systems and 300 biogas generators, creating more than 9.5 million saleable CERs and projected revenues of more than $100 million.

The roots of the venture can be traced to the "Bring Your Own Water" system designed and built in the village of Muramba by the CU chapter of EWB in 2006, which uses gravity, rapid sand filtration and solar-powered ultraviolet light to disinfect drinking water. The original system required a user to pour in a bucket of water to take one out at the other end, but it has since been redesigned into a more robust, in-line system, also incorporating cellular telephone technology for automatic reporting of any maintenance needs.

The EWB-CU chapter also initiated the use of biogas reactors to generate methane for high-efficiency cook stoves, agricultural fertilizer and improved sanitation in Rwanda.

Gold, a civil engineering Ph.D. student who has been the chief engineer on the EWB Rwanda project since 2003, is currently in Rwanda, working as Manna Energy's chief technology officer.

Thomas, an aerospace engineering Ph.D. student and NASA-Johnson Space Center employee, helped to launch the EWB chapter at NASA that has partnered with CU on projects in Rwanda.

Volunteers from both groups, including NASA astronaut Ron Garan, joined together to form the nonprofit Manna Energy Foundation and its subsidiary for-profit venture, Manna Energy Ltd.

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