Sitting in our homes and having bottled water is easy. A lot of us have been so privileged that we often overlook the problems that the world is facing. For us, getting clean drinking water is not a task but it is in many parts of this world.
Dr. Suphiya Khan is a scientist, innovator, and entrepreneur. Among many achievements and awards, she has also received a Chevening Fellowship from the University of Oxford. She is the founder of Drumlins Water Technologies, a spin-off company that is striving to solve the fluoride issue in water. A few years down the line, she wants to see India as a fluoride-free country.
Team Sociobits connected with Dr. Suphiya Khan to know more about her and Drumlins.
Team Sociobits: Could you tell us about how was Drumlins Water Technologies founded?
Dr. Suphiya Khan: Drumlins Water Technologies was established at my research center, Centre of Excellence on Water and Energy in 2015 when we had a novel discovery in this area. I come from a place that is situated in the fluoride anemic zone. We have strived for several years to solve the problem of fluoride in water and since around 2010, I noticed that the water technology that was being used didn’t tackle the problem of fluoride contamination or dental and skeletal fluorosis that still persists especially in the young population.
We took this research problem and found a novel solution in 2015 and for the commercialization of this technology, we found this company. Not only solving the fluoride problem, but I also want to empower women through my company because women are still not considered for higher positions in the research sector. And our company has the potential to not only create opportunities for them but also create a huge social impact. This could be transformative for our society.
I am the Founder of this company and have seventeen years of research and teaching experience mainly in the water and biotechnology sector. I was already a part of the MHRD Centre of Excellence for Water and Energy and currently, also run the Water Innovation sector. I come from a very technical background in nanotechnology and water. Our co-founder is Dr. Samina Khan, she is one of my students and has twelve years of business strategy experience. She had a good idea about how can we commercialize this technology. Finally, we founded the company in 2019 to put this idea into action. Our team members are diverse consisting of students with them I have worked in the last 10-12 years and also recruit people for sales and marketing.
Team Sociobits: Can you explain the solution that Drumlins is providing to tackle these problems?
Suphiya Khan: We are in the drinking water sector similar to RO systems. RO systems release brine after purification but our solution doesn’t release that, making it sustainable and affordable. So, it seems like the right solution for community water tanks.
“The unique part is that our solution doesn’t require excess water or electricity for its operation and we have formulated a scalable, patented, and smart defluoridation technology”-Dr. Suphiya Khan, Co-Founder of Drumlins
The unique part is that our solution doesn’t require excess water or electricity for its operation and we have formulated a scalable, patented, and smart defluoridation technology. Now, we are at a stage where our solution not only removes fluoride but it also removes other contaminants from water such as heavy metals, odor, microbes, etc.
Team Sociobits: How does reducing the fluoride level of water help society?
Suphiya Khan: Around 45 lakh people are still getting affected by the problem of dental and skeletal fluorosis. 66 million people in India and 200 million people around the globe are troubled by fluorosis. In fluorosis, the bones in our body get weak very fast, and you start aging in your 40s. Some people even have to get knee replacement surgeries at an early age. In dental fluorosis, your teeth start turning yellow. It also impacts the productivity of an individual.
The government has also put in a lot of effort in tackling the problem in spite of that, this problem exists. After researching a lot about the quantity of fluoride in water, we found that our body requires a certain amount of fluoride. If our bodies will be deficient in fluoride, even then we will need dental care and if there is an excess amount of fluoride in our body, then it becomes toxic for us.
So, there is no technology in this world that can maintain the level of fluoride in our bodies. Also, the fluoride content in the land or water keeps changing almost every 100 meters, it is not the same throughout.
No matter, what kind of technology you develop, in comparison to the input water quality; the output water quality will always have some fluoride left. All the technologies available have not been able to remove ionic fluoride from water and ionic fluorides are highly reactive. It can be harmful to our bodies. Due to all these above reasons, Drumlins provides a very specialized approach to cleaning our drinking water in a very affordable and sustainable manner.
No matter, what kind of technology you develop, in comparison to the input water quality; the output water quality will always have some fluoride left.
Team Sociobits: Is there anyone else who provides a similar approach that Drumlins provides?
Suphiya Khan: There are many competitors of Drumlins. Some are working on, filters, and RO systems, and claim that their technology can remove fluoride, but not all of them remove fluoride successfully. The novelty and uniqueness of our technology are that our product has a high fluoride removal capacity. And the most important thing is that our technology is a single-point solution. Meaning, that if someone from a village opens their tap, they will get purified water. It removes not only fluorides but also other contaminants. Our technologies are patented and for the purpose of commercialization, we are currently on a market fit model of water tanks. The testing and trial for the same are in process.
Team Sociobits: Since 2019, how will you describe your journey with Drumlins? And what have you learnt in your journey?
Suphiya Khan: It was very exciting and also brutal at the same time. It was definitely not easy but it gave me a purpose to live. Although I am working as a professor, I knew that this was my calling. In 2013, I got the drive to get up and do something to change the world.
It was my dream to see an impact on people by using whatever I studied in the field of science. I think that it wouldn’t make sense to practice my science in a lab that was not fruitful for people. At that time it was vague how will our journey be because being a scientist and an entrepreneur is like a roller coaster ride. The scientific mindset and business mindset are very different. So, I learned a lot. I also observed how other professors were commercializing their innovations especially when I went to Oxford.
After this, the next ten years were very clear in my head. What I have learned from my journey is that you have to keep doing your job. You are definitely going to face a lot of problems, there will be issues in the tech, you will face difficulty to find the right team, and funding will also be a challenge. In spite of all these problems, you have to keep going. When you continuously solve these problems, you become more tolerant and you are also appreciated by receiving awards and accolades.
Team Sociobits: What are some of the challenges that you have faced with Drumlins?
Suphiya Khan: In deep tech startups, it is very important to have highly knowledgeable and qualified professionals. So, affording such professionals becomes a little tough initially. In fact, it is very difficult to innovate a product that is market fit in deep tech. Retaining the team was also a tough job.
Working in a startup, it is also important to manage people efficiently. I feel that someone who knows how to manage people can do anything in this world. Even if you are the smartest person alive, if you don’t have people skills, you are bound to fail. It is the era of smart work.
Team Sociobits: Since you have been striving for this cause for a long time now, is there anything that you would like to share with budding startups?
Suphiya Khan: I would only like to say that you will face a lot of challenges, but make sure that you don’t give up. Sometimes your team members will part ways with you, you should remember that leaders are alone at the top. Until your startup starts earning revenue, it will be very difficult but after that, it does get better. I feel that if you are passionate enough and have that drive, there is nothing in this world that can stop you from reaching the top.
Remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. You cannot be an entrepreneur in one day.
Failure is not an option for me because if I fail, my team also fails and everyone around me will fail. That’s why you should have strong leadership qualities and networking qualities. The journey is very exciting and as a scientist, I have personally learned a lot of things. The journey is quite long but you should be ready to pay the price to see the results.
When you are at the top, there will be a lot of people ready to pull you down but you should not be bothered by it. Remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. You cannot be an entrepreneur in one day.
Dr. Suphiya Khan is not only headstrong about solving the issue of skeletal fluorosis over the world through Drumlins Water Technologies, but also feels that being an entrepreneur teaches you a lot of things.