Building a Better Filter: Corrinne Clinch (CEE, BME '14)
Corinne Clinch (BS '14) learned an important lesson about resource access from her uncle when she was young: "People didn't die because of malaria" in his home country of Cameroon, she says; "they died because they couldn't get transportation to clinics where the proper malaria treatment was available."
That early lesson in the dramatic impact of basic infrastructure and specific systemic flaws— what Clinch calls "close, but no cigar" failures—was part of what led her to devote herself to water purification and to found the startup company Rorus, Inc.
According to the United Nations, approximately 3.5 million people die each year because they do not have an adequate water supply, sanitation, or hygiene. But Clinch hopes that her company's point-of-use water filters can help to change that.
Rorus is making the first rapid, gravity-fed filters that don't require measurements or added chemicals, but instead use nanotechnology to filter dirty water quickly. In a demonstration video on YouTube, Clinch shows how effective Rorus' durable, backpack-style filters are by filling one up with brown water from a drainage pipe in Frick Park and dispensing clear, drinkable water from the spigot at the bottom of the bag almost instantly.
"Usability is the priority for all Rorus filters because it's the real reason people don't have clean water," Clinch explains. Although six hours of direct sunlight is enough to disinfect a plastic bottle of clear water, that process is time-consuming and doesn't improve the taste or appearance of the water, she says.
Rorus may be a young company—Clinch co-founded it in 2014 with CMU industrial design student Uriel Eisen—but its innovative technology already is earning plenty of attention and accolades. In just the past few months, Rorus won BNY Mellon's Social Finance Global Innovation Award, placed first in South by Southwest's 2016 accelerator competition and won the festival's Trend of the Event award for civic engagement, and won the Launch Pad PITCH competition at the tech startup conference Collision.
Before founding Rorus, Clinch had multiple experiences working abroad on water-related issues as an undergraduate: She spent a summer in rural South Africa researching new methods of purification, and developed software tools for water management in Ghana as an intern with CMU's Robotics Institute.
Clinch says her education in CEE gave her the practical skills necessary to gain those experiences and to help resource-limited populations. "Being an engineer while experiencing the challenges of developing countries makes those problems feel like opportunities to get involved, rather than just overwhelming realities," she says. Clinch earned a double major in biomedical engineering (BME), something she says "wouldn't have been possible without CEE being so adaptive and them being so understanding of what I was doing." CEE professors worked with her and helped her tailor class projects to her specific ambitions and interests.
"I’m lucky that the whole CEE department encouraged my spunk, even though it sometimes made it harder on my professors," she says. That helped her to graduate with the double major and a master's degree in in biomedical engineering in less than five years.
As she's made the transition from engineer to entrepreneur, Clinch says one of the biggest challenges has been to remember to take risks. "It’s easier as an engineer to wait until you have the data you want before making a decision, but for the company to grow, it needs to move quickly and grow beyond my personal control," she says.