Radio Cade

Handheld Water-Quality Sensor

May 08, 2019 Safa Amiri Season 1 Episode 31
Radio Cade
Handheld Water-Quality Sensor
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Radio Cade
Handheld Water-Quality Sensor
May 08, 2019 Season 1 Episode 31
Safa Amiri

With an aging infrastructure, the United States faces more scenarios like Flint, Michigan, where high lead levels became a threat to safety. Safa Amiri, a chemistry professor at the University of Florida, has developed a handheld water-quality sensor that detects contaminants with just a few drops of water. Learning to play the violin as a child, Safa says, helped him learn how to persevere. His model was his father, a successful entrepreneur in Iran.  

Show Notes Transcript

With an aging infrastructure, the United States faces more scenarios like Flint, Michigan, where high lead levels became a threat to safety. Safa Amiri, a chemistry professor at the University of Florida, has developed a handheld water-quality sensor that detects contaminants with just a few drops of water. Learning to play the violin as a child, Safa says, helped him learn how to persevere. His model was his father, a successful entrepreneur in Iran.  

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade , who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Water is the stuff of life, but unclean water can lead to death. But the good news is that we have ways to determine what water is safe to drink or use on crops and for animals and what water is not. So today on Radio Cade we welcome Safa Amiri, a professor of chemistry at the University of Florida and the inventor of a new water quality sensor. Welcome Safa .

Safa Amiri:

Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Richard Miles:

So Safa, obviously clean water is a big deal and people have recognized the scientific basis of that conclusion for about 150 years or so. Um, and there are different ways to measure water , water quality. So describe for our listeners before we get into your background, you know, what makes your invention different? Why is it , uh , better, cheaper, faster than other techniques?

Safa Amiri:

Sure. So the motivation behind this invention was what I was just seeing in real life in Flint, Michigan. I said that 8,000 children who were affected by lead poisoning, that is, that is like heartbreaking. That is , uh , just because you don't know what you're drinking and just, you just, just imagine, just keep drinking, tap water. And then after a, while you, it out, all of your children are effected or you can't even take a shower with that water. And , um , all of these were because people are just don't know, they just don't know what, what they're drinking, what, you know, what is in their water. And , uh, in several scenarios, even like, you know, they are not informed about it and they have also no knowledge about water chemistry. So it's very heartbreaking that , uh , they don't have a handy tool to test for it. About 45% of the piping infrastructure in the U.S. still is, you know , very too old. And, you know , um , they all contain lead and that causes a lot of issues. About 18 million people are still being suffered by those pipes that are being utilized for the water transportation under the ground. And they all need to be renovated. And it has been shown that if U.S. wants to fix all of these issues, it's going to take about two centuries, fix all of those and the cost of $1 trillion dollars. So they are not going to be fixed easily unless there's a problem. And people do not have a handy tool to do it. So that was the beginning of the alright, so we need to do something about it and let's fix this issue. So I came up with a sensor, water quality sensor, which is a handheld portable, easy to use sensor like cell phone, imagine, and then you just pour a drop of water and it tells you what is in there and how much of that is in there. And then we also be able to, you know, provide solution to our wider commendation . All right , so you have this, this is the way to fix it. You have are sending in the water, you have lead in the water. This is the good treatment for it. And then we can help them with the design, because that's what I did for the past six years for my PhD. I did design and building water treatment and design nation systems. So not only we can help them and bring awareness to the communities about what they drink, but also we can help them fix it because most of them, they don't know. They don't know what they don't know basically. So we need, we help them , uh, bring the awareness to the communities. We help them know what is in their water. And the second , second step is to help them fix it with the right treatment because not all of the off the shelf technologies you buy from the store is going to fix that specific element that you have problem with.

Richard Miles:

The innovation in your product is a fact what that is handheld and that you need just a relatively small amount of water?

Safa Amiri:

The innovation is that you can do several ions at a time handheld portable in your hand. W e d idn't k now specific solutions for calibration. So basically whatever technology that was out there, it was not for drinking. It was usually t he f irst swimming pools like testing for chlorine. So you would buy a sensor for chlorine, or you would buy a sensor for w hatever element is out there. And it's a huge, very expensive, and it cannot detect several elements at a time. What if you have two ions? What if you have different IRS, you have, yo u n e ed, you need, it needs to be co st-effective. It needs to be easy to use. It needs to be, you know, u h , s ustainable. So all of these that we , we bring many things into one sensor. We can also measure pH and electrical conductivity on top of those heavy metals that we have in the wa ter, everything all in one place. So people don't have to worry about sending their water sample to a laboratory to test, which is very cost ly, co stly, and they have to wait a lot of time, you know, for them to come back to the ess a y. Th is is the results. So it's very the way that it is right now. It's very time consuming and very expensive to test your water. And it's not any, there's not any, you know, easy to use and han d held tec hnology that people can use.

Richard Miles:

And is this envision for a consumer, retail use or would there still be like water inspectors that would need to come in and use the device?

Safa Amiri:

Good question. So there are two routes to go. One is t he, from the business to consumer and one from the business to business, we can go both. We had in terest f rom pe oples a nd consumers or f amilies that need one like the handheld sta ndalone te chnology. But then I went to like Milwaukee two weeks ago for to water coun cil to get a word on b oa rd with sen sor technology. And as part of that, I met one-on-one with several big corporates of, you know, water mete rs, li ke Badger meter, like Veol ia, al l of these big corporations that do water treatment. And they all explicitly said that we, we love these types of technology and we, we would like it to be inli ne so that we can test the wat er at the point of use right before it goes to the houses. So they want ed to install that on t he pip es. So we are now working on having a separate design to go in l in e suc h that utilities not only moni tor the water flow and water pressure, but also they can monitor the water quality at the point of use, because usually the problem that utilities have, they know what they're releasing into the pipelines, but they don't know what actually the consumer will get, because the problem is that underground that is where everything will happen. Even in Gainesville, if you just drink a cu p of tap water in here and then, or go, you go to, I don't know, Alachua test that, or you go the other side of university Avenue all the way to Newberry, you will see that's goin g to t as te differently. So many of those water will come from the same source, but the issue is unde r the gro u nd. So they cannot call it. Ut ilities, cannot control what actually people would get. So they love to have a tool handy at the point of use to test the water. So, so the answer is yes, both utilities and, uh , wa t er treatment companies would be interested in these for inli ne pur poses and from household per perspective, stan d alo n e so that everybody can test it at home if utilities is not jumping in.

Richard Miles:

Right. Now Safa you, as you mentioned, you've been working , uh, you said seven years on your PhD, right?

Safa Amiri:

Yes.

Richard Miles:

So you've been involved with water for quite a long time, and I know you've had some other breakthroughs, right?So rather , uh, inventions or products. Could you describe a little bit, you know, what else in the, in the water clean water arena that you've been working on.

Safa Amiri:

During the past five years? Um, I started , uh, I got my PhD in New Mexico State University and , um , in 2012, that's where I, when I moved to the U.S. actually, and then , um, I started working on a real project that people can actually use. I really wanted to do something useful, not just for the sake of wrapping up my PhD. So in 2013, I wrote the proposal to use the agriculture residues and bio waste to , because we have a lot of those in New Mexico and Arizona, a tumbleweed, pecan shells, orchard prunings, RVs waste . We use those to get the energy off of it, to produce , uh, to treat the brackish water, because there's not much of a precipitation in New Mexico and Arizona. So that way we can treat the brackish water, which is very, quite salty over there. Even like in some cases it has more hard water like calcium sulfate and calcium carbonate that even then even sea water. So it tastes very bad, actually very bad. So that way we can treat those while they're using the, you know, otherwise wasted source of, you know, fields such as bio waste. So that was the whole , uh, concept of my PhD to treating the brackish water using the biomass energy. So I simulated everything, you know, from scratch all the way to the prototyping. So the project was funded by Bureau of reclamation. And then , uh, so I was privileged to work on something real in my PhD, not just like going all the way to the simulation and say bye, so I did not only simulation, but also design, but also building the actual prototype of the water desalination system called Multiple Epic Distillation. In short , we call it MED. And then so the whole system, I called it Aggie MED. And that's what I applied for Cade Museum Prize for the last two years. And Aggie MED, A GI stands for a griculture residues and also the mascot of New Mexico State University. And the MED stands for Multiple Effect Distillation. So basically imagine t he portable smallest scale treatment technology that you can put in your backup, u h, u h, back of a b ig pickup truck and just pull it around the wells in a farm, wherever you have w ays, just put it in there and then treat your well water. I did the prototype a fter that and I did customer discovery for that technology. So the whole entrepreneurial experience for me started when I got a funding from National Science Foundation for a program called i Core National i Core. So I got $50,000 just to travel, get o ut o f t he building, talk to people, talk to customers, to see potential customers, to see if there's any demand for this. So it was actually, it opened my eyes, it opened my eyes to everything to see. Is it useful? Is the thing that I'm working on, is someone going to actually use it? And I'm really grateful for that program. And I did it in 2016 and I was t o entrepreneurial lead a long t he, with my advisor, but my advisor was actually just there as a PI. And I was the lead i n, in, in, in t he, in that scenario, our case, w e know w hat w as s witched. I t's kind of, so I was the one who was telling her what to do, who to talk to because I was in a position of an e ntrepreneur entrepreneurial lead. I had to manage the team. I had t wo b usiness mentors, so we're all working on a team. So we had to, I had to manage a very, you know, u h , a n actual scenario where I was going to actually an issue that people we re s truggling with. So I talked to several people from breweries to da ily f armers, to semiconductor manufacturers, to everybody from different segments that even talking to them should be very different than, you know, I learned how to talk to people differently, such that they don't hang up the phone as s oon I ca lled t hem, because they thought that I'm Salesman.

Richard Miles:

Right. Oh, that's always a good metric if people don't hang up the phone.

Safa Amiri:

Oh yeah . At the , at the beginning we were supposed to do 15 customer interviews each week, but then at the end and in the week seven, I was the one who told them , please stop . I got to go. They kept talking and talking and talking. So I learned some skills. And that helped me actually learned about customer discovery, learned about before doing anything, talk to people and see if somebody cares and then go back to the lab and do your work.

Richard Miles:

So that's interesting. Let's talk a little bit more about that because inventors and entrepreneurs seem to be cut from a different cloth. You know, they, they, they often have unique experiences or upbringings that sort of lead them in direction of , of doing what you described, sort of wanting, not just to do research for research sake, but to sort of somehow apply it and make it useful. So let's go back, you know, even before your academic career, you know, tell me what you're like , uh , as a kid, were you a good student where , you know , did you just , uh, what were you curious in and then maybe a little bit about, you know, some early influences, whether they're parents or teachers, or, you know , friends, even that kind of shaped for you this worldview of like, I want to do something really useful.

Safa Amiri:

Well, very good question, because I really think that , uh, having a high IQ is not necessarily going to end up with, you know , uh, being successful entrepreneur, but perseverance does. So , um, I had a perseverance in everything I, I started with, started with my music. So I started playing violin when I was eight. And I continued that continuously all the way to when I was 22, I just took lessons nonstop, nonstop, even like one week was not stopped. I just kept going to the classes. I became quite familiar with all of the, you know.

Richard Miles:

And that's not an easy instrument. And I know, cause my son took violin and already by the age of eight, he had surpassed me. I mean, I wasn't a violin player, but parents were supposed to practice along time and I couldn't do it. My eight year old was playing much better than I.

Safa Amiri:

It's hard because at the beginning, you're just going to sound awful. You have to just keep practicing, keep practicing past that limit, that it's going to start sounding good. And so I did like 20 years, I dunno , 15, 20, whatever years of nonstop lessons learned , perseverance is the key to success. And the other hand, my dad was an entrepreneur . Also. He was a serial entrepreneur. He did, he did a lot of inventions will be doubt even protecting it because we didn't have set things back in Iran. We are from Iran. So we didn't have the like patent stuff.

Richard Miles:

So what sort of inventions did your dad do, or businesses ?

Safa Amiri:

A lot of inventions , all metal works. So either cabinets like very unique cabinets , uh , for kitchens or a filing systems that people would put in, you know , um, all the documents in a filing and also , uh, whatever with metal. So whatever industry he, he entered was with metal stuff. And then he was quite successful and he was always the pioneer in the field. And then somebody, somewhere in Iran, you know, duplicated technology. So he had to change. So he was very good at pivoting changing to different products. All he was always on the top, it was always on the top and he was not even educated. He was just like maybe high school.

Richard Miles:

Did you help him with any of these inventions? Did he put you to work?

Safa Amiri:

Well , I was a kid actually, but I was working in manufacturing , in a machining shop that he had, you know, as an intern kind of, learning, you know, a little kid getting my hands dirty a little bit and learning welding stuff and t his stuff like that. But actually I did not actually got, u h, so it was in m y, my brain that, H ey, I r eally l iked this, that he, he has the freedom to, he has his own business. He can go to work whenever. So I was very impressed by, he doesn't have to go to work like eight to five. He's very free. He comes home and have lunch and take a nap and then go back to work. I was impressed by that as a kid and I really wanted to be my own boss. And then, u h, so about, I did intern, u h, he actually really wanted me to work in that, u h, machining shop and just continue that, but I ended up going university a nd changing, but by still, I , I have all of those skills and all of things.

Richard Miles:

So that was before you developed an interest in science, or did you have an interest in science about the same time or?

Safa Amiri:

No, I was, I just mentioned the chemical engineering in undergraduate and , uh, he was really insisting on me working in the machine shop, continue to just work. And I said , no, I want to go to school. So he said, sure, go to school. So I went to the school and then I really liked it . So I continue . I was not really, I just kept going with chemical engineering. So I started my bachelor's in , uh , um , Shiraz University in Iran, in chemical engineering. Then I graduated in 2010. Then I in 2010, right after graduation, I traveled to England. I got my master's in University of Leeds in England. As soon as that ended, I came here to the U.S. did my PhD. So I was just studying nonstop . I did not do any, you know, other, other things rather than music, which was always there just coming out with me until the second year of PhD where the entrepreneurial activity started for me starting with a startup weekend. So startup weekend was the beginning of the journey were , uh, I just participated , uh, as part of my PhD, I just said, let's go there and just see what happens. Right. And then that was the beginning. I just went there. And the night before just told my wife, what should I propose? Because I should propose idea. And I didn't want it to propose my PhD dissertation said, I don't want to put myself in a trouble. Maybe that's going to cause the issue let's do something else. So I just thought a little bit about what, what can I propose? And then I just thought that, hey, water desalination is a big industry. And all of the design nation industries, they have a problem with brine concentrate coming off of the plants. So they don't, they just dump it in the ocean, which kills the Marine life or they just inject it back into the ground, which pollutes and contaminates, the brackish water, which again, they have to design it. So I just thought about how to resolve that issue and just pursue , propose an idea of, to list , to get the brine , take the water out, recovered the water because they just let it evaporate or just dump it. There's a lot of water in there. So let's capture the water from it, crystallize it, crystallized the source from it, and then use the source for energy storage. And that salt can be sold to solar power plants for energy storage, or it can be used for any, any storage , even in buildings to keep the house warm during the night. So that idea won among like 40 participants. And so when I got that award, I was so pumped to continue that and I say , wow, this is so interesting. And I just, I should consider that upon my graduation.

Richard Miles:

And what year was this?

Safa Amiri:

2016. And then right after that, that was when I applied for National Science Foundation, iCore, I just told my advisor, Hey, let's do this because I was so pumped to continue the entrepreneurial activity, even though that is not something in academia people would think of because they are not exposed to it.

Richard Miles:

Let's , let's talk about that because it's , it's fascinating that, you know, the , the two worlds are really quite different. You know, the world of academia in which you basically, you do research, you publish papers, you go to conferences and then you move on right to the next topic or the next level. And the business world is quite different. You've been in both worlds. You know, what, u m, what strengths do you think you bring as an academic to the business world and then vice versa. Having been a little bit in the business world, what do you see differently about the academic world that, y ou k now, you wish that you see maybe as a weakness or something that needs to be improved. T ell u s w hat i t l ooks l ike.

Safa Amiri:

I think there's still a gap, a huge gap between academia and industry. And nowadays it's getting much better. That's why the , these types of grants like iCore grants has come in. That's why all of these small business innovation grants like SBIR has coming all of these federal agencies, NSF, DOD, EPA, the OE all of these federal agencies back then, they just would fund a proposal without knowing, okay. Whether or not there's a demand for it. Nowadays, they have these iCore things or a small business innovation grant . So people apply and do some customer discovery upfront to see if there's a demand for it. And once they know there's a demand for it, let's go back to the office, write a proposal, do your PhD on that topic. So before, or a still, a lot of universities, they do the opposite. They write the proposal, they get the funding, they finish the proposal, finished the project,

Richard Miles:

Find out nobody wants it.

Safa Amiri:

Nobody wants it. And it's just sitting in the lab . Yeah . That's, that's, that's the way it is. Most of the, you know, it was like that until 2012. In 2012, this entrepreneurship and this customer discovery idea came into the labs and PhD students got to know about it. Hey, what is it? What, how does it look like? And then people will start to apply. And then they brought this back to university, talked to other fellow, you know, students say, you know, it's really , it's very important that you should, you should know what you're working on is some of the cures, if, if nobody cares about that, why would you do it? And then, so it was very important for me. And I, I'm glad that they understood that right in the beginning of my PhD before going too long, deeply involved into it. So I could, I could pivot, I could a little bit, you know, change my direction towards where the actual demand is. So yeah, academic environment is good. And it gives you a lot of good background and you know, the resources that you have in academia, but eventually down the road, you need to get out. You need to get out of your comfort zone and talk to people if somebody cares about it. And that's something that you would not normally do in part of academia's life. Unless, you know, either somebody motivates you or there is a like, you know, these types of grants or are you are aware of, or I got to know about it through the no university entrepreneurial or business departments . So I encourage students to get involved to outside of their department to see what's going on, because there is a very important thing that people just, you know, they're doing their PhD, I dunno , in microbiology. And then he ended up at working in software engineering, totally different, has nothing to do with your PhD, or, you know, what , that , that, that is very annoying to me personally. And I'm very glad that I had a chance to exactly work on what I did for my PhD. And I don't care if I have to change. I am always open. I'm always open to pivot and to change it to the, what the demand is and what people really wants, because as all of the entreprenuers say, the customer is the King. If they don't want it, you're out.

Richard Miles:

We talked earlier, you said you talked about perseverance and how important that was and what are some of the other qualities that you would, if you were advising sort of a younger version of you, you know, or maybe an undergraduate. And they have also , uh , an idea that, and they may have entrepreneurial leanings, perseverance, as you said, is key. And , uh , again, congratulations for three years in a row, I think you reached the final stage of the Cade Prize. So a big accomplishment, but what are some of the other things that you would perhaps recommend to , uh , you know, to think of a senior, about to graduate with their undergraduate and they think, Oh , what do I do now? I really have all these dreams of a technology or product. Are there certain things that you'd say, well, you definitely need to do this. And on the other hand are the things you say, well, you really shouldn't do that.

Safa Amiri:

Well, I think first , uh, well , beside the perseverance, I would say being open to being open and flexible to change, you know, or there should be always a better way. If, if just don't be, you know, a very cocky about your ideas , say, I have to get this. It should work. No, it may not. Or maybe people just don't want it don't want it . Don't be biased about because usually people, they love their product in academia. They love their PhD dissertation. They love that's what I did. I loved it. I didn't want to let go. So it's, sometimes, you should let go. You should be open and you should talk to people. You should have a lot of mentors. You should be open to talk to people, different people from customers to mentors. I have a lot of business mentors here and there, every everything that I'm going to do, I ask people, is it wise to do it? I'm about to sign this deal. I'm about to talk to this person. What do you think I need to think of upfront? I think it , it helped me because we don't know many things in business world . I mean , I still count myself as an academician because that's what I did most of my life. Yes. I have entered into entrepreneurial , uh , entrepreneurship world , like a while ago, but still there is a lot of things. I don't know, legal stuff, you know, I'm talking to someone I don't know. Okay, is it, what should I say? What should I not say? Still out of things, marketing, no clue. So I love people. I love people joined my company and now I have two interns. Uh , they're all passionate that they just came in and just working for me to say, we are passionate about your thing. That's all we want. I just want passion. So passion is very, very important. I think if you have the passion, that's what everything's going to be there afterwards, because money is going to come afterwards. Passion is very, very important. And like, I have two interns now. I'm pretty sure more people are going to join my company based under passion. I did not even say anything or s olicit anything that s ay, Hey, I looking for i nterns, they just came to me during different events, say, Hey, we heard that you have this technology. We a re interested in. Wow. I w ill love to work with you. So they are now working. One of them is now working on a business plan that we're working on. And then the other one, u h, she's working on a website, developing the website and also the marketing intern. So basically the things that I've no clue on, t hey're helping me with that. So t eam w ork very important. I'm always opened to be criticized. I really believe that we need to be flexible as an entrepreneur. There are many, many times that we don't know and know how to proceed. And so we have to stop. We have to ask everybody. So it doesn't matter. You know, if it's intern, if it's your employee, if it's the mentor, everybody might have idea that might change your r oute. I always listen. Even if you know, sometimes I may not necessarily listen and do that thing, but I always a ll tend to listen. And it has helped me a lot. That's why I t alk to a lot of people and I love networking. I just love it.

Richard Miles:

So that's a great list. Uh , I counter just a few perseverance, passion, openness. You're asking a lot of questions. And I realized after I asked you the question, I phrased it wrong because you're already a mentor. You're already acting in that capacity. As some of the younger entrepreneurs come to you and sort of, they know that you've been involved and they're asking for advice. And one thing you said reminded me of something, my friend and guest host Randy Scott. He said , uh , as he advises companies, he says, one of the first things he teaches in particular, academics, i s he says, you have to fall out of love with your idea. And I think you said almost exactly the same thing, right? You have to look at your own research and a detached objective way and say, is this really any good? Does it work? Do people want it? And if you can't do that, it's going to be very, very hard to take it to market.

Safa Amiri:

It's tricky, being very confident and be proud of your project. But at the same time being humble enough to ask people a lot of questions to be open, to change. So it's, there should be balanced between these two. You should not feel like you're very, you know, you should not underestimate yourself. You should be confident that this is going to work. This is going to work. I'm confident that it's going to work, just do everything that you can to make it work. But on the other hand, you should be very humble and flexible, r ight? If you go to a customer, whatever he or she says, that is what you need to do.

Richard Miles:

So, you know , some people have compared it to raising a child, right? You know, you, you, you are your child's biggest advocate and you're very proud of your child, but you also have to know like, can my child get into Harvard or not get into Harvard low nowadays of course you can just pay $500,000 and there in right? Um, but , Safa, this has been a great conversation and I really wish you the best of luck you're already doing quite well. You're, you're well known in the community. You're performing well. Um , you're getting recognized for those efforts and we look forward to having you to museum , um , helping teach about your technologies, but also the broader subject of what we've been talking about. How do you make that leap out of the laboratory into the marketplace? So thank you.

Safa Amiri:

Thank you for the opportunity. I'm very grateful for Cade Museum and of supporting the, you know, the community. This is my third time in a row and I will, I keep applying, keep applying. I keep participating. I'm just a networking person and I would love to network. And I'm really appreciative of this opportunity you guys provided . Thank you.

Richard Miles:

Well, thanks very much for coming on and hope to have you back.

Safa Amiri:

Thank you.

Richard Miles:

This is Richard Miles

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating and vendor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcasts and music theme. Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song, featuring violinist, Jacob Lawson and special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville.