AquaHacking Reflections

We didn’t think we’d start a company. But hey, here we are.

I started the AquaHacking challenge by putting the word out among friends to see who wanted to get together and form a team. We had a few sessions in May where we brainstormed problems and ideas, and settled on one that we all liked and that we thought was feasible: a water quality testing kit focused on the presence of algae toxins. The need for the product came mostly from Jill and Nicole. Jill is an expert on cyanobacteria monitoring and has numerous clients, from cottager associations to water utilities, who want to know some basic information about their water quality. Nicole is very familiar with different testing techniques and what kind of data scientists use to make decisions about algae monitoring. We saw a gap in the market: for average people, it’s really hard to determine whether our water is safe to swim. There are tests that people can buy, but they are expensive, difficult to perform and impossible to interpret. The monitoring methods available are really only available to the scientific and institutional community – not your average citizen. At the same time, scientists need way more data on algae blooms to monitor and predict their growth – so they would benefit by having an army of citizens out there collecting data.

Then our interaction designer, Peter, got us really excited about microfluidics – which he learned about through “lab-on-a-chip” articles. Lab-on-a-chip really revolutionized how blood diagnostic testing was done, because now a small chip can give you your test results in minutes at point-of-care. We looked at whether this could be applied to water quality, and could see no reason why not, so we decided that would be our product idea.

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Nicole with microfluidic device samples

We pitched the idea of CyanoSleuth – a citizen science water quality testing device and associated app – at the semi-finals in June. We didn’t expect much – we figured there would be teams who were much further along with product development or their business case. We were shocked and excited to be named one of the five finalists!

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At the June 21 Semi Finals

But also terrified… because now we had to do the hard work of figuring out how to advance this product, when none of us had any experience with product development or running a business.

Some of the main lessons we learned in product development over the summer are:

  1. We can learn anything we need to know – so don’t fret about the unknowns, just try to identify them.
  2. Someone’s done this already – find them and ask them questions!
  3. Partnerships and collaborations are key.
  4. Listen to the user to guide the product.
  5. Good people will come if the idea is strong – like our developer who joined us after the semi-finals!

After months of development work, we had a design for our test kit, a plan to manufacture it, collaborations with scientific product developers, and an app prototype with functioning colour-recognition. We went into the finals with a lot of confidence in our product, but sadly came in last place.

We are continuing on though – and likely would not be in this place if it weren’t for the competition. We are creating and refining our app. Over the winter, we will develop a beta version of the microfluidics testing device, and test that out with some initial beta users in summer 2018. We are still a long way from selling this device, and still need to learn a lot, like operating a business and working with manufacturers!!

We got this far, so why not keep going?

ImPONDerable

If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, you can email me at Sylvie@CyanoSleuth.com, and check out our product primer here.

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