How a startup from Chile wants to bring water everywhere

November 22, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Helicopters and tubing can save a community in need.

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FORTUNE -- In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, securing access to clean drinking water is one of the first problems that survivors need to solve. This is especially important to countries with underdeveloped infrastructure, as citizens of these nations may end up hauling water from faraway sources or waiting for delivery of reserves. A small company based out of Atlanta, Ga. is looking to ease the problem of water access with a novel solution: mobile pipe infrastructure.

TOHL -- the acronym stands for Tubing Operations and Humanitarian Logistics -- sees itself as an installation service of its proprietary method for water delivery. The company has developed a method of deploying a kilometer-long durable, bendable pipe that is two inches in diameter. It finds a water source in proximity to an area that needs water, then subcontracts a helicopter and attaches massive spools of the pipe. The helicopter flies from the water source to the affected area, releasing the pipe a little bit at a time, over the land. (Think of it like a garden hose running from your kitchen sink to the sprinkler on the lawn, except kilometers-long and over any terrain.) The water is sanitized and distributed at the end point. Pipes can be connected and can branch off from a main pipeline to individual houses, so the water can potentially travel very far distances and be pumped to individual households.

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Twenty four-year-old Benjamin Cohen, one of the company's two co-founders, lives in Chile where he develops the spool and pipe technologies. After graduating from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2011 with a degree in civil engineering, Cohen went to work briefly for the Georgia Department of Transportation but left when he and his co-founder, former Georgia Tech classmate Apoorv Sinha, started TOHL. Shortly after creating TOHL, Cohen and Sinha applied for an entrepreneurship program called Start-Up Chile that they felt would give TOHL the kickstart it needed. The three-year-old program, created by the Chilean government, gave TOHL a $40,000 grant to bring their research to South America.

TOHL "believes in making a profit," said Cohen, and it intends to market its service to government agencies and water-distribution related companies. It is in the process of fulfilling its first business order from the sustainable development company Fundación Avina. The for-profit TOHL has also created a not-for-profit branch to help satisfy humanitarian needs. TOHL has partnered with the Red Cross in Chile to this end, but the idea behind TOHL's mobile infrastructure is so popular with humanitarian causes that the company currently has more demand than it can handle.

As a small operation -- TOHL is currently a young, four-person company comprised of the two founders (Cohen and Sinha), VP of engineering Melissa McCoy, and director of external affairs Travis Horsley -- they don't currently have the business scale to supply their tools to all of the communities they want to help. In the future, they aim to provide disaster relief when events like the Haitian earthquake and Typhoon Haiyan occur. Cohen wants to have strategic warehouses around the world that can connect people to water sources during natural disasters.

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On Nov. 14, TOHL was presented with the Katherine M. Swanson Young Innovator Award at Silicon Valley's annual Tech Awards Gala. The gala celebrates companies that use technology to benefit humanity. These companies apply to be recognized and to potentially win thousands of dollars for their cause, and laureates are selected by a panel of judges. One of the judges, Stanford University Graduate School of Business student and former Google employee Kyle Ozawa, said, "Access to clean water is a big challenge to many countries throughout the world ... for us, we really liked that [TOHL] was focused on a big issue." In addition, TOHL had demonstrated not only the novel application of old technologies, but Ozawa and the other judges said that TOHL had a scaleability that would make it perform well wherever it was deployed. TOHL won $75,000 to fund its future work.

In the poor, rural area of Chile where TOHL has been testing its prototypes, people in the community were previously getting their water from water trucks where it was treated heavily with chlorine and came in small quantities. The new water source has had a huge impact on the community. The community helps with the labor of installing the pipes, and the clean water improves the health of the area. In addition, the abundant water supply frees up time spent acquiring it, and the new water source empowers the community to spend more time getting an education.

They have a long way to go, but successful prototypes have given TOHL an optimistic outlook on how their technology can help solve one of the world's most basic problems.

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