23 Nov 2022

Cynthia Koenig, founder of Wello, at the Girbau LAB Innovators Club

A new session of the Innovators Club took place on November 22, with Cynthia Koenig, founder of Wello, as guest speaker.

Cynthia earned MBA/MS degrees from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and School of Natural Resources and Environment and holds a BA in Anthropology from Trinity College. She is an Unreasonable Institute Fellow and a member of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainability’s External Advisory Board.

Cynthia’s expertise lies at the intersection of business, innovation and impact. She has helped launch ventures of all shapes and sizes, ranging from community-run ecotourism businesses in Mexico and Guatemala to a national strategy for sustainable tourism in Bhutan. She is the founder of Wello, an award winning social venture that co-creates disruptive innovations designed to provide better, more reliable access to safe water.

Cynthia is currently an entrepreneur-in-residence at Amazon’s innovation at Amazon, where she works on developing new products that make a positive impact on the world.

Her work with communities throughout Central America, Southern Africa, South and Southeast Asia have given Cynthia a deep insights into challenges and opportunities facing people who struggle to survive at the base of the economic pyramid. These experiences led her to launch Wello. During her presentation, Cynthia shared her vision of innovation from a social enterprise perspective.

As Cynthia pointed out, “The key is to understand the problem you are trying to solve. In the case of Wello, the problem was twofold: how do we provide reliable access to clean water and how do we build an effective and scalable sales and distribution strategy so that, as a company, we can reach people?”

The design process for the WaterWheel was rigorous, as Cynthia told us, “We spent 18 months designing a product that people wanted to use, not just needed, but really wanted. The WaterWheel had to be convenient. It had to be ergonomic, customizable, with replaceable parts, repairable locally and affordable price($25). Last is it had to be aesthetically pleasing and this is important because, as our customers pointed out to us, a lot of the products designed for low-income consumers look like that. They look cheap, they look ugly. In the case of WaterWheel it’s aesthetically pleasing, people are proud to use it.”

A fascinating session that we share below in an interview format.

1. What are the origins of Wello?

I founded Wello in 2010 to address a gap in the market: a lack of innovative produces and business models designed with and for people who had tremendous need, but limited financial resources. Wello is a social venture with a bold mission: to deliver clean water to a thirsty world. By reframing the water crisis as an opportunity, Wello has reinvented the wheel and developed an innovative business model that empowers individuals to use the WaterWheel as an income-generating tool to lift their families out of poverty.

Wello is addressing the root causes of the global water crisis: the problem of reliable access to safe water. Our innovative solution dramatically reduces the time, physical, and health burdens of water collection disproportionately borne by women and girls.

By pairing simple product designs with an innovative business model aimed at meeting consumer demand, the WaterWheel has the potential to pave the way for improved health and sanitation, agricultural productivity, gender equality, education, and opportunities that lead to better quality of life and greater overall prosperity.

2. What other projects are you involved in?

I’m still actively involved in Wello, and advise other social venture startup founders on a regular basis. My day job is as a Product Manager at Amazon, where my focus is on developing new-to-world products that have a positive social impact.

3. In terms of sustainability, what are you most concerned about and most excited about?

I’m most concerned about rising inequality. A growing body of research shows that inequalities might not only affect the poor, but make society worse for all. Large levels of inequality are accompanied by lower levels of trust and psychological stresses that impact upon health, levels of violence, and the use of environmental resources.

My hope is that emerging technologies can provide solutions that enable communities to avoid or mitigate harmful outcomes. I’m most excited about leapfrog technologies, like mobile phones and distributed energy solutions. I can’t wait to see what today’s innovators have in store for us!

4. What do you think innovation should be focusing on? When you hear the word

innovation, it’s often the most ground breaking ideas that spring to mind. But in actual fact, the majority of innovation (70%) is incremental innovation, which involves making small scale improvements to add or sustain value to existing products, services and processes. I think innovation should take a long-term perspective, and focus on solving pressing global problems.

5. What’s the toughest challenge faced by social entrepreneurs today?

The funding chasm is still a problem; founders can access startup capital to achieve proof-of-concept, but struggle to raise follow-on funding to scale.

6. What improvements do you forsee for the laundry industry in the next 5 years?

I think the laundry industry will see innovations in washing machines that reduce / capture microplastics, and reduce the amount of water required for washing.

7. How do you think clothes will be washed in 2050?

I think we’ll have advances in material technology that will incorporate antimicrobial and nanotech materials which will require less frequent washing – minimizing water and energy use!