If you’re 32-year old Adam L. Stein, CEO of Pasadena, California-based Advantageous Systems, the rush of water – filtered and purified reliably and inexpensively via a magnetic nanotechnology system he has brought to market, with some previous collaborative development from former partner Dr. Jacob White – is all about what tomorrow will be for the 1.1-billion people worldwide without access to clean water.
“In the United States, we pretty much take for granted that there’s plenty of water and it’s all safe to use,” Stein says. “But that’s definitely not the case everywhere in the world.”
Had Stein been more Robert DeNiro than Richard Smalley, it’s unlikely the individuals he’s most helping today, mostly in Asia, would know a thing about him. As a college student at NYU, Stein had his eye set on Hollywood stardom, intending to pursue a career as an actor until his life-altering epiphany after performing in a campus production. “I’m not good enough,” Stein remembers thinking. “So the next day, I changed my major and got into neuroscience and biology, and I moved forward from there.”
Stein’s optimistic, can-do temperament led to advanced degrees in biotech, molecular and cellular biology, and in business from Georgetown University, and steered him toward avenues of science devoted to solving problems instead of merely diagnosing them. “A lot of us are very aware of the problems in the world, but I really wanted to spend my life trying to find answers to those problems,” he says. “The lack of clean drinking water for such a huge part of the planet’s population is a problem that needs to be solved, and we’ve really nailed it.”
Like many of the world’s finest innovations, the patented nanotechnology system Stein employs to provide clean drinking water to communities in Bangladesh and India, with additional regions to follow soon, was first devised for another purpose altogether. A former scientist with the US government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Stein patented a process that was “back then, five years ago, futuristic, a Star Trek kind of thing,” wherein a microscopic magnetic particle could be injected into a human being’s bloodstream where it would, with astonishing precision and accuracy, attract toxins, foreign agents, viruses, and other anomalies to determine the reasons for an individual’s health challenges. Stein christened the project Diagnosis Blood, and Google – as part of a new wave of health projects it’s developing – recently announced it would be working with Stein’s patented technology. Stein and his small team at Advantageous Systems have also worked in recent years with Rutgers University, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the FDA.
Seeking other applications for the technology, Stein began to wonder if the magnetic particle he’d developed might attract and, ultimately, remove toxins, viruses, and foreign material in water as well. “They say that blood is thicker than water, but when it comes to science, they’re basically the same thing,” Stein says. With two grants – one from the federal government, the other from a private organization – Stein set to work adapting the technology for a range of water-related projects.
Within months, the nanotechnology was such that, when introduced into a water supply, it could rapidly identify the impurities and either neutralize them immediately or attract them for extraction, leaving behind water safe for virtually any use. Stein’s technology is effective against a wide range of waterborne hazards, from bacteria to arsenic to E Coli.
Stein says arsenic, which occurs naturally in the world, is particularly insidious, as it almost never causes fatal illness immediately, but rather very slowly and through prolonged exposure. “Even if you had a glass of water that was loaded with arsenic, it’s unlikely you’d drink it and then fall over dead,” he says. “This is a slow contamination that most people around the world are completely unaware of. The arsenic is simply in the water you’re drinking every day, and then maybe 20 years from now, you find a blackness in your hands – one of the first signs of arsenic toxicity – and your system begins shutting down. That’s why it’s so important to remove arsenic from the world’s water supplies, because people are killing themselves slowly and they don’t even know it.”
Bangladesh and vast swaths of India are most urgently impacted by arsenic-contaminated water supplies, Stein says, and so he has focused his initial energies in healing the water there. “There’s very little written about the problems Bangladesh is facing with its water, but it is probably the worst story in the history of that nation,” Stein says. “You have these little, rural villages, maybe 2,000 people, and they’re all drinking from these contaminated water sources and the mortality rates are just astonishing. People are dying in horrible numbers because of very preventable causes. The biggest problem, for a long time, is that it’s always raining in Bangladesh. There’s no water shortage, but the people living there were mostly just drinking that surface water – where most of the bacteria and viruses really thrive.”
The United Nations became aware of the potentially lethal situation decades ago and commissioned the construction of more than one million “small wells” – dug about 100-feet deep in certain regions. Water derived from deeper underground is, most often, safer to drink, Stein says, because it has gone through Earth’s own natural filtration system, the liquid working its way through layer upon layer of sediment, which purifies the water. What the small wells did not effectively remove, and what they weren’t even designed to handle, were the arsenic levels in the water supply. “They didn’t even know to look for it back then, so they didn’t look for it,” Stein says. “But 20 years after these wells were installed, people were still dying in astonishing numbers. That’s when the UN realized: we’ve still got a big problem.”
Stein’s Advantageous Systems, launched in 2006, has spent the last two years sharing its patented Arsenic Water Treatment (AWT) device with the regions most severely threatened. (“The name is not sexy at all,” Stein cracks. “We really need a new name!”)
The AWT – a “well-head” about five-feet tall and two-feet wide, attaches to UN well structures and is capable of filtering water at a rate of 3-5 gallons per minute. It costs only $5,000 and will provide safe drinking water to communities of up to 2,000 people for a period of 10-20 years. “Conservatively speaking, 10 years,” Stein says. “But we believe the work we’re doing now will actually work for closer to 20 years.”
Stein believes he has no choice but to serve the world by bringing clean water to those most in need. “When you do the math and you realize it’s, literally, pennies a day to help save these lives, how can you not do that?” he asks. “So we’re figuring out the best ways to rally support of our efforts, eventually make the entire enterprise self-sustaining, and making sure that people, whatever other problems they might face, are at least drinking clean water.”
In 2012, Stein crowdfunded his efforts via Indiegogo and is today mulling another fundraising effort while also working the conference circuit to raise awareness for his project. “This really is a matter of life or death for more than a billion people,” Stein says. “We can change the tide of things to come. We really can. And it would be amazing if people would help us make that a reality.”