Fil2R: Filtered Water Made Eco-friendlyBy Dhivya Sridhar
A couple months ago, Audra was taking a trip to the Maldives. While there, she met two women who work for Parley for the Oceans and serendipitously volunteered to scuba dive and help them remove plastic waste from the ocean. Her passion for eco-conservation parlays (pun intended) into her business. Fil2R (pronounced “filter”) provides a substitute to ecologically unfriendly Brita filters and helps users reduce their carbon footprint. I sat down with Audra to understand more about her story and her business.
Audra is a conservational biologist and will be graduating with her PhD from UCLA in 5 months. She’s certainly a non-traditional candidate to start a company—which is something that she’s heard repeatedly since she started working on the idea. That said, her idea comes from her own life experiences doing work as a conservation biologist. No matter where she went in the jungles of Southeast Asia, she managed to encounter ramen noodle packets or plastic bottles. She told me that she would drive 6 hours into the middle of nowhere, hike 60 km more into nowhere and still find plastic waste. Her experience resonated with me as I recently heard on BBC that even remote parts of the world that are uninhabited by humans have plastic waste. When she came back, she realized that in her daily life, plastic waste was unavoidable. When she tried to find an eco-friendly way to filter water, she realized she couldn’t.
Audra’s vision is to remove plastic from the water filter pitcher industry with Fil2R. After she stumbled upon her pain point, she went to the 3D printing club (yes, this does exist apparently) on the UCLA campus and figured out a way to print her first Fil2R prototype. She then worked with designers to modify the design and manufacture it with an injection mold. She concurrently approached StartUp UCLA and entered their summer accelerator program. There she found venture consultants and other mentors who helped her through business modeling and pitching. She pitched at UCLA’s demo day and networked with the resources Startup UCLA has provided. She has no co-founders at the moment and has hired a team of 2 interns. She is being advised by Maureen Stockton—one of the leading executives at Mattel and the founder of Formé.
Fil2R is a reusable water filter that contains pods made from activated carbon. The product will be available on an eCommerce platform and is intended to offer customers greater convenience and an opportunity to lower their carbon footprint. The activated carbon in the pods is made from coconut shells—when these are heated to a high temperature, they become porous and bind to impurities in water. After they’re used, they can be thrown away in the trash or the compost. The design has a patent pending.
Customers can order the filter case for $5. Audra plans to model her business after Dollar Shave Club and plans to make the filters as cheap as possible in order to incentivize potential users. Customers can subscribe to receive a pod every two months for a $60 annual subscription or a $24 bimonthly subscription. The cost includes shipping and 1% of the sales proceeds will be donated to charities that either provide clean water to underserved communities or that help remove plastic waste.
Audra posits that each filter allows users to avoid using a minimum of 7200 water bottles a year. That’s essentially 1,323 lbs. of plastic waste that users can remove from their carbon footprint annually.
Market and Competitive Landscape
58% of all Americans filter their water. That’s around 190M people. Audra expects that her product will cater primarily to millennials and future generations and expects that around 15% of the addressable market will buy her product.
Brita™ is currently the industry leader in the market and currently accounts for 7 out of every 10 water filters sold. The second leading brand is Pur and Up and Up is third. None of these market leaders have an ecommerce model and none of them offer a sustainable alternative. There are other direct competitors in the space including Soma (based out of San Francisco). They’ve designed an aesthetically pleasing water pitcher that is made entirely out of glass. While they’re a direct competitor, Soma is certainly targeting a more premium tier of customers—their product costs over $100 a year. While researching competitors, Audra also found a couple names that haven’t gained traction but are trying to infiltrate the industry.
This begs the question—how soon will the giants in the industry act? Brita is a part of Clorox and while they represent only $300M of annual revenue, an ecommerce model will help them keep their consumables revenue intact and a sustainable product will help them attract future customers. And if they decide to act, will smaller companies coming to the market be able to keep up against Clorox’s deep pockets for marketing?
Going to Market
Earlier this November, Audra participated in the Blackstone Launch Propel Event and was recently accepted into the Plastic Pollution Coalition—a group comprised of 1,000+ organizations globally that are dedicated to reducing plastic waste and consumption. She has also launched a Kickstarter campaign on October 29th in order to formally start the product launch of her product. The Kickstarter campaign is intended to raise the minimal funds she needs to offset the cost of her injection molds. After the Kickstarter campaign ends on December 5th, Audra plans to reach out to eco-influencers and utilize eco-subscription boxes in order to spread awareness. Through her contacts with StartUp UCLA, Audra has amassed a network and listservs that will give her a head start on her marketing efforts. With that additional traction, Audra hopes to raise a seed round of $500K next year.
“Our competitive advantage? We are a brand that cares. We’re not just trying to sell filters; we’re trying to do good. 1% of all our revenues will be donated to non-profits that either remove plastic waste or that provide clean water to under-served communities. Ultimately, the goal is to increase that percentage as we become more successful.”
Going green can be seen as the flavor of the minute. Every company—even the biggest polluters on the globe—talk about their environmentally friendly initiatives. What struck me about this company was that Audra walks the walk. For example, while “eco-friendly” spoons are available on the UCLA campus, Audra informed me that they’re made of PLA (a plant-based plastic alternative). While it may be plant-based, it’s not eco-friendly since it’s not recyclable. PLA and many other “eco-friendly” plastics must go to special recycling systems (that they rarely make it to) in order to be recycled. Fil2R is made of BPA-free polypropylene which can be thrown into a recycling bin and easily recycled. The material was painstakingly selected after Audra weighed the odds and looked at the various sustainable options available.
“Eco-friendly plastics are not very eco-friendly. It’s fake green marketing. They have to be industrially composted in order to break down.”
On the flipside, with the alternatives available for filtered water, I wonder how much traction Audra’s filter product will get. Independent of Brita’s market, there are Glacier water filtration systems outside practically every grocery store that allow customers access (in a relatively eco-friendly way) to filtered water. Moreover, while Audra plans on having a suite of products in her sustainable portfolio, this product captures a niche in the filtered water industry with home users. Product portfolio expansion will be needed in order to gain sustainable traction. If she manages to create a strong brand reputation and makes her intention of being a “brand that cares” apparent, this traction may come independent of a broad portfolio.