Syracuse University Magazine

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The WaterPort team (clockwise from left): Victoria Di Napoli '12, Professor Ken Walsleben '83, Chris Grant '12, William Craine '12, and Hunt Lau '12. 

Photo by John Dowling



Harvesting the Rains for a Parched World

The amount of moisture on Earth is finite. The water the dinosaurs drank eons ago is the water that falls as rain today. But its supply can no longer satisfy the needs of our planet’s population. It was this humanitarian concern that inspired a team of students in the Whitman School of Management—Chris Grant, William Craine, Victoria Di Napoli, and Hunt Lau, members of the Class of 2012—to create an innovative technology for harvesting potable water from rain. 

The origins of their achievement lie in Whitman’s capstone course, Strategic and Entrepreneurial Management. In the course last September, Professor Ken Walsleben 83 challenged students to develop an original idea for a product, along with a business plan for a new venture. By December, the team had formed a company, WaterPort LLC, developed a product, the RainPort, and presented a plan that won instant recognition. “Their success reflects teamwork that can only be described as magic,” Walsleben says. “Each of them brings a distinctive and vital skill set to the venture, yet they speak the same language and share the big picture.”

In January, WaterPort was offered free office space and professional support services—financial, legal, accounting, and more—by the Tech Garden, a start-up incubator and accelerator for companies in Central New York. At the same time, the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems provided the space and expertise essential for developing the product prototype. Grant, now the company’s chief executive officer, says, “If the RainPort is to become the unique,  earth-shaking product we envision, it has to be totally self-contained—independent of any external infrastructure or energy source.” In its present form, the RainPort meets this overriding criterion. Powered by a solar panel, it can turn every inch of rain collected in its 200-square-foot catchment area into 120 gallons of purified water—enough to satisfy the needs of a small village. “Essentially, we are there!” Grant says. 

Besides organizing their company and refining the product, WaterPort’s partners have been engaged in the trying but critical ritual of business plan competitions. So far, they have won national recognition and more than $20,000 in targeted awards. With entrepreneurship professors Alex McKelvie and John Torrens G93 as mentors, they’ve become polished presenters. “The competitions are a rigorous testing ground,” McKelvie says. “Each event leads to further refinements in the plan and product. Each gives the team stronger presentation skills and confidence.” Much will depend on the outcome of upcoming competitions, some of which carry cash awards of six figures. “Prize monies will help determine how fast the company can launch and progress,” Torrens says. “The major challenge right now is raising capital without having to give up any equity in the company.”

WaterPort is driven by a five-year vision with  the initial goal of setting up shop in Africa, where “there is perhaps the greatest need for pure water,” Grant explains. “One person needs five gallons to survive for 30 days in 90-degree heat. One RainPort could provide drinking water for 70 people for the entire year.” As the first step in their entry strategy, the partners have identified five non-governmental organizations in Africa that are willing to serve as beta test sites. They have also developed a partnership with Maguiguane Consulting Firm and its founder, Jose Cossa, in Maputo, Mozambique. “Our partnership will give us broad access to markets, as well as growth and funding opportunities, across the continent,” Grant says.

Looking back, Walsleben can only marvel. “It’s a thrill to see students master critical academic concepts, develop a plan for a product that can truly change the world, and then execute on that vision,” he  says. “They’ve changed their own lives for the better, and they’ll likely change the lives of thousands of others.” —Tom Raynor