If you ask Kohler associates Mike Luettgen and Mike Radloff what they do for a living, they will be exceedingly humble. You might hear “I’m an engineer.” Or maybe “I design products for developing countries.” But the reality is much, much more.
They both have some big titles: Mike Luettgen is the Senior Principal Engineer for our Innovation for Good group and Mike Radloff is the Senior New Product Development Project Leader for Water Technologies. And they both are part of teams making a big impact—focused on developing business solutions and products to solve WaSH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) issues in developing countries or areas hit by natural disaster.
For the last several years, Luettgen has spent his time on the development of new toilet technologies—particularly focused on the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Partnering with Caltech and the Gates Foundation, he led a Kohler team that developed a new toilet prototype for field application in India, where unsafe sanitation was polluting the water supply. After several years—and many trips to India—Luettgen used a combination of electrochemical and biological sciences to successfully design a machine that treats toilet wastewater, making it safe enough to send back for another flush—a closed-loop system. The system was operational for more than 2 years, and they were able to publish their learnings in several scholarly journals to push research and development further.
More recently, Luettgen has pivoted into exploring other ways to address non-sewer sanitation. “While we started to address access to safe sanitation in underserved communities, we’re realizing that the solutions we are developing have application across all of our markets. It’s a great example of reverse innovation,” explained Luettgen.
Meanwhile, Mike Radloff has been busy, as well. Responding to the need for safe drinking water in many parts of the world, he joined the team focused on the development of the KOHLER Clarity water filter solution. Clarity provides up to 50 liters of safe drinking water each day—enough for a small family. These filters have been deployed to developing areas and regions hit by natural disaster.
Without skipping a beat, he then lent his expertise to another worthy cause. This time partnering with the nonprofit clean water charity, Water Mission, Radloff began work developing a pour-flush toilet option for use in rural Honduras.
“Our Kohler Thailand team had a pour-flush product that we were able to tweak for Water Mission’s needs,” explained Radloff. “We paired the bowl with a robust seat, packaged it for high-density international shipping and set up the SKU for sale through the U.S.”
The positive impact was almost immediate, and feedback from the field was excellent. Because the pour-flush toilet design is so simple, it’s very durable and requires virtually no maintenance. It’s also easy to use, water efficient (only 2 liters to flush) and provides a more accessible option for the elderly or individuals with special needs.
“These toilets are used all over southeast Asia,” said Radloff. “But we see great opportunity to use them in other parts of the world, and we are working to make that happen.”
While in the Peace Corps, Radloff spent time in the Philippines and saw first-hand the struggles associated with unsafe sanitation.
“Helping people who don’t have much is so rewarding—getting the pictures and testimonials of families melts my heart and reminds me why what I’m doing is important,” reflected Radloff. “And the entrepreneurship of the role is an added bonus. Creating a small business with Kohler Co. and the opportunity to try new things is a real blessing.”
Luettgen echoes the sentiment. “I have my days when I wish I could design something more standard. There’s never a template to follow or old habits to fall back on,” he explained. “I’ve spent most of my career on the forward edge of technology development, and it seems I’ve grown comfortable with, and motivated by, the ambiguity. I know we’re making a real difference.”