Making real change in the world is no small undertaking. We are fortunate to have some incredible partners as we work to develop safe sanitation to clean drinking water solutions.
In a traditional new product development world, the planning process is very deliberate and organized. But when it comes to our Innovation for Good program, it’s much more observational and entrepreneurial.
“We go out into the world and ask organizations and people what they need, what their problems are,” said Mike Radloff, Senior New Product Development Project Leader for Water Technologies. “We’re not always sure what to do at first, but the opportunities present themselves, and it makes you think a little differently.”
A perfect example is our partnership with the Gates Foundation for their Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The Foundation invited eight universities to participate in developing new sanitary technology, and we reached out to the schools, offering our expertise or products. We eventually helped one of the participants, CalTech, assemble their beta prototype, using a KOHLER toilet. The prototype was a hit at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair, and the Gates Foundation invited Kohler Co. to participate in the challenge as an enterprise grantee.
With resources and support from the Gates Foundation, we took the technology developed at CalTech and created a system that treats toilet wastewater, making it safe enough to send back for flushing. The system was tested in India for two and a half years, and findings were published in scholarly journals for future research and development.
“Thanks to this partnership with the Gates Foundation, we were able to create a product for the developing world, and also to explore other innovations to address non-sewer sanitation,” said Mike Luettgen, Senior Principal Engineer for sanitary solutions. “This is an important step in the effort to reduce water consumption and has application in both the developing and the developed world.”
Another wonderful partnership we’ve formed in our WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) work is with the nonprofit charity Water Mission.
“This was an instance where Water Mission approached us and asked if we had a pour-flush toilet option for work they were doing in Honduras,” said Radloff. “They needed a simple design, something easy to use, reliable and user-friendly.”
Kohler jumped at the opportunity, working with a pre-existing pour-flush toilet design from our Thailand team to tailor a solution for Water Mission. The toilet continues to be popular in many parts of southeast Asia, and we have plans to partner with additional NGOs and expand in other developing regions.
“As an engineer, I really admire Water Mission and their solutions,” added Radloff. “The work they do and their approach from an engineering standpoint is incredible.”
Radloff’s team has not been the only one to partner with Water Mission. Our generator division was also tapped to lend their expertise.
“I met the CEO of Water Mission at one of our Innovation for Good events in Italy,” said Brad Meissner, Product Manager – Diesel Generators at KOHLER Power Systems. “He asked for our help to develop a better power switch for their off-grid water filtration pumping stations.”
Brad and his team got to work. Using funds won from our annual innovation competition, the I-Prize, they developed and tested an automated blending device that readily switches between solar energy and generator power.
Currently, hired individuals must travel up to 30 miles to manually switch existing systems from solar to generator power. This inconvenience often means the change isn’t made and the unit relies on generator or grid power 24 hours per day, increasing costs to the community or refugee camp.
This intelligent power system automates this function by continuously monitoring the availability of solar power and transferring to generator power only when needed. After completing the prototype, the team worked with Water Mission to test the unit at a water filtration site in Puerto Rico, which was hit by a devastating hurricane in 2017. The unit performed well, and Water Mission immediately requested 27 more for the area. The next step is to install another prototype in a Uganda refugee camp and eventually build the business case for commercialization.
“This is by far the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my career,” said Brad. “Water Mission strives to be the best in everything they do, and it’s easy to be excited and engaged when you work with them. They’ve pushed me to be a better professional.”
Radloff agreed. “Benefiting and learning from our partners and solving problems together is a crucial part of our success. I love discovering the problem they’re trying to solve and figuring out how we can help.”