Water Out of Thin Air wins 2016 Discovery Competition

Social venture WOOTA (Water Out Of Thin Air) is the winner of this year's School of Engineering & Applied Science's annual Discovery Competition and will receive $20,000 in cash, as well as $5,000 in legal services from law firm Polsinelli for building a device that turns humidity in the air into clean drinking water.

Social venture WOOTA (Water Out Of Thin Air) is the winner of this year’s School of Engineering & Applied Science’s annual Engineering Discovery Competition.

"Our success really reinvigorated our team's drive to do whatever we can to further the project," said WOOTA's team leader, Kailin Baechle. She and her teammates first heard about the competition from Dennis Mell, professor of practice in Electrical & Systems Engineering, as prospective students. Once enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, they decided to work on a project together to eventually enter the competition.

"The mission of the Discovery Competition is to promote an entrepreneurial and inventive spirit in our engineering undergraduates," says Mell, who helped launch the competition in 2013. "We strive to give the participants a taste of what it would be like to launch a startup company from an engineering concept, but at the same time, we encourage them to understand the marketplace so that their inventions evolve into a marketable solution."

WOOTA homed in on the global water crisis after "a lot of brainstorming and some less-than-stellar ideas," says Baechle, who is a sophomore in biomedical engineering. "More than 780 million people worldwide lack access to clean water, and 3.4 million deaths result each year from water-related diseases."

Baechle says the beginning of WOOTA was the realization that there are three dozen countries where more than a quarter of the population lacks access to clean water.

"That, plus the more than 60 percent humidity in those countries, got us thinking, 'What if the water these people need so desperately is just in the air around them?'"

Mell called WOOTA's innovation a "remarkably simple" device for providing clean water to remote communities of the world.

Over the coming months, team WOOTA wants to field-test its device in Madagascar, where Olin Business School professor Judi McLean Parks takes a group of social entrepreneurs each year. Nearly 90 percent of the island nation's rural population lacks access to water, and it also has extremely high, 80 percent humidity all year.

Baechle said the benefits of the purification system extend far beyond the realm of health.

"WOOTA's device could have a huge impact on education, especially for young girls," says Baechle, who has been the team leader since the first day. "Studies show that a 15-minute reduction in the distance to a water source increased girls' school attendance by 12 percent."

Team WOOTA's immediate focus is tweaking their current prototype design and maximizing the efficiency of the device, Baechle says.

"We hope that by the fall we can begin to build connections with nonprofits and work toward our initial implementation on the ground."

Runner-up InVitro SELECT, which provides an innovative selection system for assisted reproductive procedures such as in vitro fertilization, received $15,000 in cash and $2,500 in legal services from Polsinelli. In January, InVitro, consisting of Huy Lam (BS biomedical engineering '16), Kenny Chin (BS biology '16) and Robert Bailen (MBA '17), received an $8,000 grant from BioGenerator. InVitro also won the DMD Emerging Medical Innovation Valuation Competition and took second place in the TigerLaunch Competition earlier this month. Read more about InVitro on the Olin Blog.

Third place and $5,000 went to team Hidden Hand, a device that aims at improving the management of bleeding during surgery.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 88 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, more than 900 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.