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Graduate Student Wins Prize for Solving Water Problem

Chris Wilmer, a chemical and biological engineering graduate student in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, recently won an innovation prize for his proposal to solve water problems in developing countries.

Wilmer received the $4,000 prize from InnoCentive, an online marketplace where organizations can post "challenges" that need solving. Potential solvers submit their solutions, and the organizations pay an award to whoever best meets the requirement.

The challenge Wilmer took on was to identify water issues currently affecting people in developing countries where limited funding can be expected to create a maximum benefit for the population affected. Wilmer, a graduate student in the lab of Randy Snurr, professor of chemical and biological engineering, worked with Northwestern University colleagues Simeon Bogdanov, a graduate student in electrical engineering, and Toan Phan, a graduate student in economics.

In their solution, the group states that the majority of water illness-related deaths in developing countries occur in rural areas. Previous solutions haven't worked since many people are unaware of the link between water quality and diarrhea. The group proposed creating an incentive-based system for local entrepreneurs to sell cheap and effective water treatment technologies. Such a system would work, they say, because it relies on profits instead of good will, and the burden of convincing residents of the treatment would fall on the local entrepreneur rather than a foreign aid worker.

The group's idea is modeled after a similar situation in Bangladesh, where more than 270,000 "phone ladies" borrow money to buy mobile phones (called Grameenphones) and sell them to local villagers.

"We believe that the humanitarian benefit of a successful 'Grameen' style safe-water business would be on par, if not greater, than a phone business," the proposal states.