How a partnership led an outdoor equipment company to start a new division

The SE200 Community Chlorine Maker is a portable device that uses salt, water and electricity to rapidly produce enough chlorine to treat 200 liters of water per cycle. Photo courtesy of PATH

When Mountain Safety Research, an outdoor equipment manufacturer, donated gear following the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the team started to ask whether some of its products might be adapted to meet the needs of remote villages. A deep partnership with PATH, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on global health innovation, evolved over time and eventually led MSR to launch a global health division last May.

The launch of MSR Global Health coincided with the release of its debut product, a chlorine device now being piloted in Kenya and Mali.

The groundwork was laid back in 2008 when PATH, which was focusing on developing water treatment tools for households that could afford them was looking for a partner to work on providing safe water at the community level for people living on one or two dollars a day. When PATH saw that Cascade Designs, MSR’s parent company, was engineering water treatment products for military and outdoor recreation use, it decided to start a conversation. As those talks continued, PATH encouraged MSR to identify ways the purification system it had developed with support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency might work for people living on less than $5 a day.

The result of a joint effort between MSR and PATH to brainstorm, design, prototype, manufacture, and field test a new product is the SE200 Community Chlorine Maker.

David Shoultz, program leader for drug development and devices and tools for PATH, shows Devex how the SE200 Community Chlorine Maker works.

“I do think we need to come up with a catchier name,” David Shoultz, program leader for drug development and devices and tools for PATH, joked as he demonstrated how the device works. With salt, water, and a power source such as a motorcycle battery, the small and portable device uses electrolysis to create a chlorine solution that can be used to disinfect 200 liters of water in five minutes.

Villages can disinfect water sources from community sources like trucks, wells, or schools on the spot, sparing individuals from having to fetch and transport their water in large plastic containers. There is a growing number of entrepreneurs like Patrick Mailu in Nairobi, Kenya, who sell the water they treat using the device.

Global health is crowded with safe water interventions aimed at preventing diarrheal diseases, which are a leading cause of death of children in developing countries. But questions remain about the effectiveness of various products or programs, in part due to factors like user error and a need for behavior change.

Chlorine is the most widely used water treatment, according to the World Health Organization, but it’s not the solution for particularly dirty or muddy water, it can be a challenge to come up with the right consistency, and the solution has a short shelf life. MSR Global Health built the SE200 to address some of those issues and partnered with PATH to test the device in more than a dozen low resource settings to gather feedback from end users.

“If PATH and MSR could lead the WASH community to commercialize products that are higher value than even donated products, that would be ideal,” Laura McLaughlin, the director of MSR Global Health, told Devex via email. “We are interested in providing high-value commercialized products that only get used if someone chooses to buy them.”

The product is available for $239, and MSR sees nongovernmental organizations, governments and institutions as the target market. Nearly 300 units have been sold since launch and the organization is building its international distribution network.

Given the similarities between the gear needed for challenging outdoor environments and remote villages, there are a range of outdoor equipment companies that distribute products throughout the developing world. But with a separate global health division, MSR offers an example for how businesses built to meet the needs of backcountry enthusiasts can adapt existing products or develop new ones to meet the unique needs of low resource users.

Cascade Designs, the parent company of MSR, manufactures its products in Seattle, which is a U.S. global health hub. The Washington Global Health Alliance works to build partnerships between organizations with complementary strengths, and founding executive director Lisa Cohen said the PATH and MSR partnership is an example of its reason for being. While there are about 160 organizations based in Washington state that serve the global poor, PATH was the natural choice for MSR, Shoultz said. The organization was best positioned to help MSR make their products “appropriate for use by potentially billions of people around the world for clean water in a global health context.”

After years of working with PATH, MSR employees wanted to see a separate global health division within their company that would tackle these issues, and after evaluating the market the company saw a business case and did just that.

“Having a dedicated distribution and marketing and design team is really important in doing this right and meeting the needs of customers,” McLaughlin said. While the core technologies would be similar, the product configuration has to be different for low resource settings and it helps to have a division to handle that, she added.

The most difficult challenge for MSR Global Health has been balancing grant funding and product development. Since WASH funders do not tend to focus on product development, most of the work MSR Global Health does has to align with other goals, like child or maternal health.

“There’s less room for failure on these topics than the product development process requires,” she told Devex. “PATH and MSR have gone to great lengths to figure out how to manage this challenge to both meet funder goals and develop high quality products, but not without rough spots.”

As the MSR Global Health team looks to expand its portfolio of technologies for people living on less than five dollars a day, they continue to work with organizations that bring the field expertise and the relationships with end users they need.

MSR and PATH continue to partner, with much of their work funded by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But MSR is branching out as well. World Vision is taking the product from the factory line to communities in East and West Africa. So far the pilots in Mali and Kenya have been promising, said Ashley Labat, a WASH monitoring and evaluation specialist at World Vision.

“We are seeing early signs of its compatibility in communities where World Vision has set up local water, sanitation, and hygiene committees,” she said. “As we continue exploring the application of this technology, it is clear that these committees play a role in the awareness of this technology, its acceptance among community members, and ultimately, its use."

MSR Community Chlorine Maker implementation in Yatta, Kenya. This is one of World Vision’s water sites. Photo courtesy of PATH

MSR and PATH are continuing to expand on their work together on the SE200 and are developing a related product geared for disaster settings. They do so over regular meetings in either at the PATH office building just around the corner from the Gates Foundation or at the Cascade Designs warehouse further south.

“There [is] a sense of it not being our people and their people but really all of us together working on not just this innovation but innovations that will come after this as well,” Shoultz told Devex after a recent meeting with McLaughlin and her team.

Looking ahead, McLaughlin said MSR Global Health plans to expand from water to other areas, from clean cookstoves to tents adapted for refugee camps.

Another goal for MSR Global Health is to be more of a technical resource to the global health community.

“A lot of our partners don’t know about product development or how to know if they’re dealing with an alpha prototype or a full production product or how to tell what water treatment product to buy,” she said.

MSR Global Health is also working through some of the challenges that will be essential for the future of low resource product design: finding new ways to coordinate the goals of funders, product developers, and implementation organizations.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.