TORONTO (Reuters) - Manuel Desrochers wanted to do something to counteract the environmental hazard of billions of plastic water bottles filling up global landfills. So the Montreal, Canada-based entrepreneur and his sister, Noemie, created a unique water filter to help wean thirsty consumers off their bottled water obsession.
The 23-pound ceramic egg-shaped apparatus holds 11 liters (2.9 gallons) of water and uses the combination of gravity and a glass filter cartridge to purify ordinary tap water. It's a stylish twist on the 5-gallon plastic water cooler that has been the standard-bearer in homes and offices for years.
Water and entrepreneurialism have always been seminal forces in the Desrochers' lives, as their father Luc - a noted Quebec businessman - founded HydroSerre Mirabel, the world's largest hydroponic lettuce company. Manuel and Noemie both worked for the company in China, before branching out on their own and starting Aquaovo, the company that manufactures the Ovopur.
While Manuel is the architect and oversees the production, Noemie handles the marketing and business development side of the business, which officially launched mid-2007. The timing couldn't have been worse to introduce a high-end water filter into the market at the beginning of a global recession, but nearly three years later the duo have quietly forged a name for themselves and their sales have steadily improved each year.
"Our target market is really 30-50 year old young professionals, who really like the design of it and they're thrilled to hear that it's actually functional," said Noemie, who added they raised the price for the filters from $560 to $660 after their first six months in business. "We really came to this price thinking this clientele is willing to pay for quality, so they'll spend around $700 for the Ovopur."
Desrochers said her father gave them $40,000 in "love money" to start the business, which her brother used to develop and test his prototype. He chose to avoid using any potentially toxic plastic components and settled on porcelain, in part for its look and feel, but also because it keeps the water a couple degrees cooler than room temperature. They initially looked for a local ceramicist to build the units, but ended up using Chinese artisans. The units are then assembled in Aquaovo's Montreal factory, where they also add their own customized designs.
"We went to China first for their expertise in ceramics and second for the price issue," said Noemie, who is quick to defend the negative environmental impact associated with overseas shipping. "At the end of the day, even if its transported from China, you save for many, many years of plastic bottles, so it's still much more green than continuing to do the same thing as before."
Desrochers said that despite the Ovopur's premium price tag, the unit actually saves families money when compared against buying bottled water. After the initial expenditure for the device, Desrochers said it costs consumers roughly another $200 annually for three glass filter cartridges (they retail for $50 each, plus shipping), which have a four-month lifespan. Desrochers added that the average family spends anywhere from $300-600 a year on bottled water and that the Ovopur starts to save families money after two years. Plus consumers don't have to worry about any harmful chemicals leaching from the plastic bottle into the water.
According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), a consultancy firm that monitors the global beverage industry, the U.S. bottled water market is an $11 billion annual industry and Americans alone consumed more than 8 billion gallons of bottled water in 2008. That represented close to 40 billion plastic bottles, according to BMC data.
Desrochers' research showed that roughly 90 percent of purchased water bottles end up in the garbage or in nature and that 40 percent of commercial bottled water is actually tap water.
"Manuel was very interested in the quality of water and he was worried about the environment," said Noemie, adding Aquaovo's 2009 revenues were $320,000 and the business is on track to bring in $850,000 for fiscal year 2010. "He really wanted to find a solution that was non plastic and that would replace plastic bottles."
Desrochers said the company's biggest challenge is growing sales in the lucrative U.S. market. The Ovopur is currently sold in less than 10 stores across the U.S., but Desrochers still anticipated U.S. sales would account for half of Aquaovo's revenues by the end of the year.
In order to make that happen, Desrochers is looking for an additional $250,000 from angel investors to finance a new marketing push and get new products to market. Later this year, Desrochers said Aquaovo will be launching a high-end reusable glass water bottle, that will retail for between $60-80 and include an extractable filter unit that fits any wide-mouth bottle.
"I think we have a great product. It's taking off," said Desrochers, whose Ovopur was voted best kitchen appliance of 2009 by Interior Design magazine. "We need more funds to do the marketing, the development and trade shows in different parts of the world."