Serial Entrepreneur Looking to Solve the Problem of Clean Drinking Water

This interview is an excerpt from a story that originally appeared in It Is Innovation (i3) magazine, published by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)®.

Overview Serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist Dr. Carmichael Roberts shares the genesis of Zero Mass Water, which produces clean drinking water from the air.

Dr. Carmichael Roberts, serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, has his finger on the pulse of the technology industry. He is a founding partner of Material Impact, a fund that seeks out transformative technologies and builds them into enduring companies that solve real-world problems.

The fund's strategy is based on Roberts' successful career as an entrepreneur-investor in materials, blending a unique business model of licensing university technology and commercializing it through targeted partnerships with Fortune 500 companies.

Roberts sits on the board of Zero Mass Water, founded by Cody Friesen, which exhibited at CES 2019. The system relies on SOURCE Hydropanels that extract as much as five liters of moisture out of the air per day, producing clean drinking water.

Roberts spoke about his work with Zero Mass Water.


What is the background of Zero Mass Water?

When I think about big problems that are global and humanitarian, clean drinking water is the biggest. For the last five years, I have been looking for a platform that would be part of a solution for clean drinking water.

Nothing really popped out at me until Cody Friesen — who is now the founder and CEO of Zero Mass and is also a professor at Arizona State — called me and said, “I’ve got something that I have been working on in my lab that I am rolling out into a commercial enterprise. Would you help me with it?” 

For the last five years, I have been looking for a platform that would be part of a solution for clean drinking water.

Dr. Carmichael Roberts

And the entrepreneur in me, not necessarily the investor, said, “that’s interesting.” I went to see Cody in July in Phoenix and it was 107 degrees. I pulled up to the Arizona State campus at the Department of Engineering in my rental car, and it was so hot, I didn’t want to get out.

Cody showed me his prototype unit for SOURCE in the desert with extremely low humidity and high temperatures. You couldn’t imagine there was drinking water that could be pulled from the air without grid-based power. Slowly but surely this unit was gathering water out of the desert air.

Cody had basically come up with a material set that in the desert air would compete for water, finding those moisture molecules and effectively condensing and collecting them into a reservoir. That was the launch of Zero Mass Water.

Cody took a sabbatical from Arizona State while he worked as the CEO of the company. I have been on his board from the earliest days helping him navigate how to grow this company. SOURCE is now sold in over 18 different countries.


Is there a limit to how many people can access water in an area?

There is more water in the air than all the fresh water on the planet. If you look at the ambient water that exists in the atmosphere, there is a tremendous amount, and so you are not at risk of running out. That is why it is so remarkable what Cody did.

So where would this struggle? It would be in areas that have very low temperatures for prolonged periods of time. How would you solve that if you were looking at some of the more Nordic super-cold areas? How do I get enough heat, so things don’t freeze?

These are important environmental factors that Cody and his team have had to consider while advancing the development of the technology.


How does this business expand?

This is a global problem. You need to treat the whole world as the market, which is not trivial, especially with a topic like water. Water is very personal. Depending on where you go, to get these units out, there are a lot of go-to-market complexities in each geography.

We also want to make sure that the water is safe and regulated so that people don’t find out that they are drinking something that is not great for their children.

It is remarkable that in less than four years, we find ourselves in these countries where the market is responding so positively.


Read the full interview with Roberts in i3 magazine. 

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