A Pitch with a Purpose

Daniel Blood, Rob Damitz and Erica Gonzaga sat attentively as Dr. Michael Morris, the George and Lisa Etheridge Professor of Entrepreneurship, gave his critique of the trio’s proposal for the UF Big Idea Business Plan Competition.

“The feedback was kind of rough,” Gonzaga said. “He was talking about things that we had no idea we had to include. We learned as we went along.”

Suffice to say, they’re fast learners. The three engineering students, who had virtually no business experience, won the competition on April 25 along with its grand prize of $25,000.

“It was a real humbling feeling more than anything,” said Damitz, a third-year, doctoral student in Chemical Engineering. “And it was a validating feeling for us as well.”

Blood, Damitz and Gonzaga, co-founders of aqUV, developed a water bottle that contains an ultraviolet light bulb. When activated, the bulb sanitizes the bottle’s contents in approximately two and one-half to three minutes. Although the product would be popular with hiking and camping enthusiasts, the team hopes its primary use will be to help people in developing nations and victims of natural disasters. According to water.org, approximately 780 million people globally lack access to clean drinking water.

It’s a reality that Blood, 26, has seen more often than he’d like. Blood, a doctoral student in Mechanical Aerospace Engineering, has been on numerous medical mission trips to Haiti with his family.

“You don’t realize how easy things are here,” Blood said. “You need to charge your cell phone, you plug it into a wall. Down there, you don’t know if you’ll have power. You don’t know if you’ll have gasoline for your vehicle. There isn’t sanitary water everywhere you go. These are things they struggle with on a daily basis.”

Before coming up with the idea for the water bottle, the team first’s plan was to develop a device that uses UV light to kill the bacteria in toilets. It seemed like a marketable product—a quick and easy way to keep your bathroom clean.

But Damitz said Erik Sander, Director of the University of Florida’s Engineering Innovation Institute, asked his students to think bigger. Sander informed them about the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges, a list of sobering issues facing the globe.

“He said, ‘Engineers work on projects that can change the world,’” Damitz said. “He told us about the Grand Challenges, and said we should pick one from there.”

The challenge, “Provide access to clean water,” seemed tailor-made for this group. In addition to Blood’s personal experiences in Haiti, Gonzaga, 27, who will graduate this spring with a Master of Environmental Engineering Sciences, had done extensive research on the subject for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. And Damitz, 26, previously worked for Mainstream Engineering in Rockledge, Fla., where he developed a meal preparation system—which included a water-treatment method—for the U.S. military.

The team plans to use the winnings to further develop its prototype, produce an initial set of units, and then transport them to Haiti to test.

“The hard work is yet to come,” said Damitz, “but we’re thrilled we’ve gotten this far.”