Flint was just the beginning. As studies assemble, it appears our aging infrastructure, full of century-old pipes, is leaching lead into the water supply of cities across the U.S. That’s on top of pollutants like pesticides and pharmaceuticals that wash into our water supplies. Simply put: Much of our drinking water isn’t safe. And we might not even realize it.
Ecomo—which launched on Kickstarter this week for $149—is a 20 oz. or 24 oz. water bottle that’s not only capable of filtering bacteria, fertilizers, and heavy metals like lead and mercury from our drinking water, it can actually test your water for contaminants, too. You simply fill the bottle, shake twice, and wait for the LED screen to report the water quality. If filtration is recommended, you twist the bottle 360 degrees, and you’re good to go.
So whether you’re at home or hiking on a trail, you’ll know whether or not your drinking source was safe. And you actually only need to purify it if it’s not. As a result, users can save money on replacement filters, while also walking away with a much better understanding of their own environment.
"We’ve had filters for over 20 years, but we don't know if that’s working, and what is in the water," says Ecomo founder Eric Li. "We want to help people to know what’s in their water, and use that data to build a much more efficient filtration systems."
Li, who got his PhD from Carnegie Mellon in environmental engineering, has studied water contamination for 15 years. Beginning in 2014, he teamed up with others from CMU and MIT, raising $1 million in funding and developing the bottle into what it is today. The Ecomo team developed the core sensing technology, along with a unique three-part water filter that uses ionization to pull heavy metals from the water, a metal fiber membrane to filter away 99.9% of bacteria, and what’s possibly its most unique element—an activated carbon layer, which works like a Brita carbon filter to trap contaminants at a radically smaller size, making it more practical for water bottles. Meanwhile, the twisting motion was another space saver: Instead of using a Brita-style reservoir to filter the water with the force of gravity, Ecomo just uses your own muscle.
A third party has certified the materials inside Ecomo will work successfully to filter heavy metals, and the company will be seeking more third party certification once the product is finalized. Systems like PUR already use a similar ionization techniques as Ecomo to filter away lead (Britas don’t, by the way). But the problem is that there’s no feedback about whether or not you actually need to be using that PUR filter in the first place. And Li imagines that the Ecomo's feedback loop wouldn’t just inform the customer—it’s the sort of data that could help governments, too. The bottle connects to a smartphone app that will allow users to report their findings, like an internet-of-things device that could actually have an impact on public health and policy.
"To be honest, it’s too early to say how can we monetize [that feature]," says Li. "But to me, helping people drink clean water is the most important thing, rather than monetizing the data."
At the same time, Li’s grand vision of Ecomo as a smart device could also be its downfall because it may have too many features to do everything well. Assuming they can actually deliver on its core vision—for instance, right now, the system’s sensors can detect lead in water, but not finely enough to detect slight violations—the bottle is still a bit bloated with distractions. They also want the Ecomo to monitor your hydration levels, and it comes with an onboard activity bracelet, which can be popped off the bottle onto your arm to track your exercise. Ecomo is trying to do a lot of very hard things well—and I can’t help but wonder if reducing some of the tech features could have helped reduce the cost, and complication, of the device.
When I ask if Li considered a simpler version of Ecomo, without all the LEDs and accelerometers, he admitted their approach may or may not make sense for the mass market. "I guess it depends on who our customers are. Or what is the purpose of the bottle. Our main differentiator is the sensing technology," he says. "We wanted to be more like an internet-of-things, high-tech product, rather than a regular bottle product in that sense. But I don't know in the long run which one is better. For now, for the audience we have right now, I think it works."
Indeed, it’s the sort of glowing vision of the future that Kickstarter fans will eat up, and Ecomo’s $50,000 threshold seems like a sure thing. But in the future, Li does imagine more versions of their product on the market: Assuming the company keeps up its momentum, Ecomo's next trick will involve attaching its filter to faucets, to monitor and purify water straight from the tap.
[All Photos: Ecomo]