Spotlight Series: Interview with Alexander Patto, CEO of WaterScope

01 Mar 2021
Spotlight Series: Alexander Patto

Who are you?

My name is Alexander Patto, and I’m the CEO and co-founder of WaterScope, a company developing a simple-to-use, rapid bacterial testing system for drinking water.

What inspired you to start WaterScope?

I’ve always wanted to make a positive impact to society some way. When I was young, my grandmother died of a genetic disease and this compelled me to do a PhD in Genetics, in the hope that my research would have a positive impact. As I progressed through my research, however, I realised that academia was not the right path for me. I began pursuing other opportunities, one of which was in a student project exploring how particular bit of research taking place at the university could be applied to the developing world. The project I was involved in looked at ways to purify water, and we were tasked with identifying methods we could use to test the cleanliness of water after treatment. During this project we quickly realised that the technology for identifying bacterial contamination was very limited, slow, complex, and cumbersome, so we decided to form WaterScope to address this problem. Globally, over 2.2 billion people lack access to a safe water source and more than 2,100 children die each day from diseases caused by bacteria present in water. Improved testing techniques and early identification of contaminated water sources are integral to solving this global challenge.

How does it work?

WaterScope’s bacterial testing kit to enables anyone to conduct a test independent of resource availability, and provides a fast, low cost and reliable test result. The kit consists of two core components: a disposable cartridge to enable easy sample collection and preparation in the field and a testing system which includes a microscope and machine learning to identify bacteria. The cartridge tests for a variety of different bacteria including antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The testing kit contains an embedded Internet of Things module which, facilitates the automatic upload of testing data. This allows stakeholders to view the results in real-time as well as analyse trends, of all the test results obtained by their organisation or community network. 

What makes working at WaterScope so rewarding?

Fundamentally I enjoy what we do at WaterScope and how we work together; we are a close team with an inspiring goal. I also enjoy the fact that I am learning so much - I have continuously learnt new skills in CAD design, 3D-printing, how to conduct field trials, management, manufacturing of parts, programming, and a bunch more. 

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your entrepreneurial journey so far?

Product design and iteration of our system has been the most challenging part of our journey. As our system grows bacteria in a small cartridge, we have found that the usual prototype iteration process has had huge knock-on effects on bacterial growth. This is very important to us, as the sensitivity and accuracy of the system is crucial for us to have a positive impact.  It has meant that we have had to establish a precise method of product iteration. Also, field trials are challenging and intense as well as rewarding.

 What’s next in the pipeline for WaterScope?

We are working with partners Aquaya, Oxfam and Tearfund to test our system at the world’s largest refugee camp in Kutupalong Bangladesh.  We are extremely excited to see the outcome of our system’s performance in this setting. Then we hope to finalise the prototype design to enable us to commercialise in 2022. We are also looking for funding to accelerate these activities. 

#WorldWaterDay is on the 22 March 2021, and water means different things to different people. What does it mean to you and why do you think there is a need for an awareness day?

Water is life, but here in the west we take it for granted. Raising awareness and educating people about the global issues around water inequality is a key part of solving the problem.

2020 was a challenging year for everyone. How have you kept things going?

Covid-19 affected us quite a bit. We had a field trial planned for June 2020 in Tanzania to conduct human-centred design workshops to improve our system. As this was no longer possible we had to find a workaround that did not compromise the integrity of the project. We opted for remote trials, shipping each partner a system and working closely with them. We were then able to expand the project by performing remote trials in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. As a result of remote working, we have built deeper relationships with local partners, which has allowed us to continue the project even after completion.

What advice you would give to budding engineering entrepreneurs?

You have to be passionate about what you are doing as the hours will be long. If you can build a strong team who share that passion, you are halfway there.

What impact has the Enterprise Fellowships programme had on your business? What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt?

I learnt to be lean in my thinking. There is so much to do in the early stages, so prioritisation is really important. The programme provided access to a great peer network of innovators and entrepreneurs, the wealth of information and advice that comes from this is fantastic. I am still in contact with many of them today.  You also receive mentoring from an Academy Fellow who is an expert in your field, which is a real advantage. The programme also gave me time to think about the company, where it was going, and where I wanted it to end up. It was a crucial year for WaterScope and the Enterprise Hub made all the difference.

And finally, have you got any tips for potential applicants?

Preparation is important, so sound out your application with as many people as you can before you submit, I found this the best way to make sure my application read well.

Quick fire questions

Who is your role model? Christopher Hitchens

When I was a child, I wanted to be… A video game developer

If I wasn’t an entrepreneur, I would be… Probably a software engineer (or I would like to think so)

What’s your biggest weakness? I am obsessive, I have so many hobbies it is crazy.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Christopher Hitchens, Jesus Christ, Elon Musk, George Orwell

When I’m not working at WaterScope, I am… Probably running

What are your top three desert island items? Nintendo switch, solar powered battery with charger, fishing rod

Do you have any life regrets? Not that I know of

If I could have a superpower, it would be… Probably to stop time

If you could live a day in a life of another person, who would it be? Elon Musk

Which fellow Hub Member are you most impressed by? Tian Carey, great guy

And finally, if you could invent a new piece of tech, what would it be and what problem would it solve?

A portable device that could detect and characterise smells 

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