How a Seattle startup turned a low-tech, thrift-store inspiration into a high-performing water purifier

How a Seattle startup turned a low-tech, thrift-store inspiration into a high-performing water purifier

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Team-Photo-edited--630x418.pngThe Raiin team is made up of current and former students at Western Washington University — including CEO and founder Nancie Weston. Back row, left to right: Clayton Foshaug, graphics (design major); Macall Prengel, actor (kinesiology major); Katie Winkleman, communications (communications major). Front row, left to right: Lucas Van Dyke, videographer (business major); Naia Shedd, graphics (design major); Weston; Michael Nguyen, editor and public relations (public relations major). Not shown: Ian Ferguson, actor (journalism major); Maks Mosses, videographer (public relations major); Dixon Kenley Lamb, website (computer science major).

Inspiration can come from unlikely places. For Nancie Weston, it sparked in a Goodwill thrift store.

Seven years ago, Weston co-founded Grayl, a company making water purification devices. The Seattle-based business produces water bottles targeted for the outdoors and travelers that filters out heavy metals, disease-causing bacteria, viruses and protozoa, and other contaminants. The bottles use a NASA-created filter and work like a French-press coffee maker where users force water through a filter-containing cartridge.

Grayl scrapped its way to success, crowdsourcing support through Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns. In 2015, Grayl announced that it had raised $800,000 from angel investors.

Weston was eager to expand the Grayl line to products for home use. After all, it’s easy to find news headlines warning of lead and other contaminants in the water that flows into houses and apartments, schools and other buildings from Seattle to Flint, Mich.

The leadership and the board at Grayl, however, were focused on a different use and audience, Weston said. So she left the company in 2017, retaining shares in the business.

Then came Weston’s a-ha moment at Goodwill. She was fiddling with a cup with a plastic top and squishy container when she was struck by an idea. She wondered if the squishy cup could be used to create suction to pull the water through a filter. The idea worked, and Weston quickly moved on to applying the technology to a larger pitcher that could meet home-filtration needs.

Last year, Weston launched Raiin to create the suction-driven, water-filtering pitcher.

“I started Raiin to continue my vision of bringing clean water to households and disaster areas around the world,” Weston said. “If families had these water pitchers in these disaster situations, it would stop palette loads of [bottled] water from going overseas. Bottled water drives me crazy, it’s so wasteful.”

Despite her previous success, Weston struggled to find investors. She was running out of money and reached out to Northwest Innovation Resource Center (NWIRC), which referred her to an entrepreneurship class at Western Washington University (WWU). Weston made her pitch and connected to a team of students eager to help. The undergraduates offered their public relations-focused services for free, but Weston is granting them stock in the startup. Raiin doesn’t have a specific home, ranging from Seattle to Bellingham, Wash., where WWU is located.

RAIIN_pitcher_whitehandle-212x300.jpgA prototype of the Raiin pitcher. (Raiin Photo)

There are numerous home water filtration options already on the market, including well-known Brita pitchers and more expensive systems installed into home plumbing. Weston hopes to offer an affordable alternative that removes more pollutants than Brita via smaller filters that create less waste.

The Raiin team is launching a Kickstarter campaign today, on Earth Day 2019. The 30-day, publicly-funded campaign aims to raise at least $20,000 to fund a final prototype. If the fundraising goes well, $300,000 would cover the production of a first batch of pitchers and $500,000 would pay for full production.

A $49 pledge will buy contributors a pitcher, if all goes well. The market price for a pitcher will be $74.

“I’ve done so much research about water, and it’s just crazy what’s in our water,” Weston said. “You just can’t see it, and we’re drinking all of that.”

We caught up with Weston for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: I started a company called Raiin and invented a water pitcher that filters and purifies germs and toxins out of water anywhere in the world, fast.

Inspiration hit us when: I was in a Goodwill, of all places, and I found a cup that was squishy on the bottom and hard plastic on the top and thought, “Wait a minute, I could add a filter to this and it would suck the water right through!” I added a filter and it worked! That night I slept on the idea and came up with the design for the pitcher.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrap. I went to investors and they all said the same thing: “We don’t invest in hard products, only software, wearable tech or apps.” After six months I was out of money and I had to make the switch to Kickstarter. With no money I went to WWU and pitched my idea to a group of students in the entrepreneur program.

Nancie-in-her-house-630x420.jpgNancie Weston, founder and CEO of Raiin. (Raiin Photo)

After class a guy walked up to me and said, “We just started a company and I have all the staff you need to help with Kickstarter. Two videographers, a lighting person, a makeup person, actors and actresses, a website person, two graphic artists, a social media and PR person…for free!” They needed the experience and for their resume. I was an alumna from WWU so we all hit it off. One of the kids was recently shocked when he read a WWU newspaper headline: “Lead found in the pipes of the old buildings on campus.” In two months, we’ve put together everything from branding to a video. We launched on Kickstarter on Earth Day.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Unlike all the other water filter pitchers out on the market that only filter odor, flavor and a few heavy metals, Raiin’s pitcher filters pharmaceuticals and chemicals and purifies things like bacteria, viruses and protozoa. It is faster than other pitchers — and it’s fun.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Finding these great “kids” at WWU. They are super driven, going to school, working jobs, managing social lives and doing with Kickstarter for me. They are amazing! I am learning from them and they are learning from me.

Nancie-in-her-shop-200x300.jpgNancie Weston, Raiin founder and CEO, working on her device. (Raiin Photo)

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: For six months I went in front of investors to raise money. I should have gone straight to Kickstarter. Being a woman raising money is hard. Less than 10 percent of women get funded. I even had an investor actually say they wouldn’t give me money unless I had a male partner! Really?

Which entrepreneur or executive would you want working in your corner? Richard Branson. He has charisma, is driven, fun, smart and knows how to pivot fast when things are going right. I would love to have him in my corner.

Our favorite team-building activity is: We don’t have time for a team building activity. I wish we did! We met two months ago and it’s been crazy getting ready to launch on Kickstarter.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: People who are passionate about your company, products and vision. People who are driven. They don’t need to be told what to do, they see things that need to get done and they just do it.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: You and your team have to be passionate about what you are doing or you won’t make it through the tough times. There are so many times I wanted to quit, but knowing that the water filter pitchers that are currently on the market are unregulated and just remove odor, flavor and a little bit of lead, I had to keep going to keep people from potentially getting sick from the water we are all drinking.

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