Written by Hope Tinney
SPOKANE, Wash.—The marketplace is littered with innovative, potentially game-changing technology that never quite caught on. The fatal flaw can come from anywhere, and out of nowhere, which makes the enterprise of bringing new technology to market difficult, to say the least. Add export regulations to the mix and what was difficult becomes daunting.
Just ask Wade Bodlovic, CEO of GreenFocus, a Spokane company that specializes in introducing atmospheric water solutions—also called air-to-water generators—to regions where access to fresh water is limited.
“You either sail or you sink real quick,” Bodlovic said, which is why his company beta tested the WaterBoy air-to water generator in Manila for 18 months before ramping up sales and marketing efforts in the Philippines.
The Philippines is the focus of the company’s first major export initiative for the WaterBoy, which was co-developed by GreenFocus Inc. and AWG International, both Eastern Washington technology companies.
Air-to-water generators essentially draw the moisture out of the air to create pure drinking water, working somewhat like a reverse air conditioner, but with five levels of filtration, including ultraviolet (UV) light.
In fact, says Bodlovic, the WaterBoy delivers water that is 99.9999 percent pure, which makes it more pure than most bottled water. “It’s the best tasting water there is,” he said.
GreenFocus also provides atmospheric water generators paired with renewable energy sources so that the units can be used in disaster relief operations or when users are trying to cut their energy consumption.
In the Philippines, where humidity is consistently high, the WaterBoy can create more than 25 liters of water per day on average for about the same cost as running a typical refrigerator.
Currently WaterBoys are being marketed to high-end consumers who want a cost-effective source of clean drinking water without the waste or inconvenience of buying bottled water.
GreenFocus evaluated a variety of regions to decide where the WaterBoy would be met with strong market support, and the Philippines was at the top of the list, Bodlovic said, because of its high humidity, population density and demand for fresh water.
Despite the perceived demand, entering the market wasn’t easy. It rarely is.
Along with navigating export rules and regulations at home while testing the units abroad, GreenFocus and AWG were working to find a supplier in the region who could manufacture the machines to their specifications and deliver them on time.
Then GreenFocus spent countless hours creating and deploying a marketing plan to introduce this new technology to a skeptical public. And they also needed to put infrastructure in place to ensure that the units could be serviced quickly if any problems developed.
“Bad news travels further and faster than good news,” Bodlovic said.
Fortunately, the news has been good. Starting with 20 units in 2012, the company has now sold more than 100 air-to-water generators in the Philippines, including 50 units in just the last few months.
Throughout the process, GreenFocus and AWG have received assistance from Vern Jenkins, an international export advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
“Vern is a consummate professional,” said Rocco Luongo, chief technology officer at GreenFocus. “He has been instrumental in helping us with import and export regulations and procedures.”
Jenkins’ many years of international experience allows him to help troubleshoot obstacles as they arise, but also help clients avoid potential problems in the first place.
“Vern has been a wonderful sounding board—a very knowledgeable sounding board,” Luongo said.
In addition to offering valuable advice on immediate issues related to export and import regulations, Jenkins has also drawn on his previous experience in Southeast Asia to help GreenFocus work through various challenges, from finding skilled engineers to providing quality control at the factory in Southeast Asia to mapping a strategy to ensure that the company’s intellectual property is protected.
While the immediate challenge is creating and sustaining interest in the WaterBoy, especially among Filipino business executives and high-profile celebrities, an on-going challenge is anticipating where the technology will be in five, 10 or 15 years and planning for that.
“It’s hard for a small company to look forward and take care of the present,” Luongo said. But, he said, if you aren’t looking forward, you’ll get left behind.
Jenkins has been a big help there, as well, Luongo said. “He keeps us focused on the next generation, too.”
Luongo is optimistic that technology will continue to improve so that production costs will decrease while water output increases, which will make the technology more useful in impoverished areas.
Indeed, when Typhoon Haiyan hit in November 2013, GreenFocus, in collaboration with local partners, donated 20 units to help provide clean water in devastated areas and raised nearly $50,000 for relief aid.