Back in June, when the idea of toilet entrepreneurs was still new to me, an article in Forbes caught my attention: “Check The Bathroom For Your Next Startup Idea” It was about a young American entrepreneur named Liz Morris, who had created a waterless toilet called 'The Dungaroo'.
Liz seemed a woman after my own heart, and so I sent her an e-mail asking if she'd do an interview for my book, and she very kindly agreed. Skyping from our respective co-working office spaces we carried out my very first interview. She was a natural stand-up comic fully embracing the humorous side of the work, while staying thoroughly grounded in her project and in the knowledge of the problems she was tackling.
When I talked with her in June they had only just released a prototype. This week the Dungaroo has launched an Indigogo campaign, so though the book is still an odd assortment of scribbles and articles sitting in folders marked "to read" it seems an appropriate time for this particular interview to see the light of day.
Into the Loo: From Packaging to Poo
The first thing I always want to know from anyone working in the Sanitation industry is how they got there. What makes a person think "you know what I'd like to do with my life? Create toilets!"
Liz's story is a particularly good one.
Her background is in product packaging. She earned her BA from the University of Florida and worked for companies like Kraft Foods in England. Her "ahha" moment came when one of her professors asked her "How would you package poo?"She went on to complete her Master's Degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering in 2011, and came up with the Dungaroo. She told me "I realised I was spending more time doodling toilets than actually writing my thesis!"
The Dungaroo: A dry solution
In toilet land waterborne sanitation is a big topic. We often think of a flushing toilet as the highest marker of a civilization. Well… maybe not often… but when you are forced to think about toilets, that’s what many would choose. For many people on the planet this is neither realistic or practical.
The beauty of the Dungaroo is it maintains the user experience of a flushing loo, while disposing of the waste in a unique way. With each "flush" gears turn and seal it off in a plastic bag which drops into the tank below. So it doesn’t require serious behavioural change for those who are used to the convenience,
The sanitized contents can then be put disease free into a landfill. It’s not an ideal solution, and ultimately they want to partner with organizations which have an interest in actually using the waste in more productive and sustainable ways. Meantime it at least prevents the spread of disease, contamination of water supply and other problems commonly associated with poor sanitation.
Sanitation Creations was founded in 2011. Liz partnered with her childhood friend Dan, who has an accounting background. She said it was a perfect partnership because, "Not only did we potty train together. Now we are building potties together!"
The company initially entered as a competitor for the Gates 'Reinvent the toilet challenge.' Though they lost out to the California Institute of Technology's solar powered toilet, they continued with the project, learning about business as they went.
Liz had a lot of wisdom to offer on the life of a budding entrepreneur. “It’s about patience and perseverance.” That’s a quality needed for for any entrepreneurial endeavour, but she points out that there are extra challenges for a physical product like a toilet, as opposed to digital apps. You can’t just get a bunch of coders in your living room and have something to immediately test. You have to wait for suppliers who won’t always tell you how long it’s going to take or even be on board with the idea. There are a lot of people involved in making a toilet. “You get told ‘no’ every day, but you stick by what you believe in. Sometimes you show them the prototype and they go ‘we don’t make that.’ We respond, ‘yes you do. We just want to use it for something different than you’re used to.’”
Though her work and a large part of her interest are in provision for developing countries her aim is to set up as a profit-making enterprise, rather than becoming dependant on NGOs and grant funding that might be pulled at any time. This allows them to make the product into a viably commercial enterprise and will give a more solid foundation for international work, where there is great social need but less profit to be made.
The potential western market for the product includes boats, cruise ships, airplanes, busses and camper vans, and vacation homes away from municipal sewage lines. Any of these would have to have a septic truck pump their waste, so the Dungaroo can essentially provide the same service with considerably less smell (which anyone who has been nearby a porta-potty being cleaned will appreciate!)
Even in developing countries Liz is open about the fact that there is a use in charging for the product. People have to place a value on it. She compares this her first computer (bought by her parents) to the one that she bought herself. “In college I was always dropping it. Now I treat it more carefully than I would a baby.”
Toilets are something we all should value. This is certainly a good month to show your support with World Toilet day coming up, and campaigns like #celebratethetoilet. You can support the IndieGoGo campaign for Sanitation Creations launch of the Dungaroo Here... and better yet, spread the word! If you start talking to everyone you know about toilets you'll be surprised to learn how interested they will be!