Hardware isn’t hard, is it?

Being self-employed is not always easy – certainly not as a social entrepreneur. Evaptainer is a empowering people. Network member who has only recently experienced at first-hand how quickly the tide can turn. In our blog Quang D. Truong, co-founder of Evaptainer, tells us their story.

They say “hardware is hard.” But to me, that always seemed like one of those corny dictums spoken in ingratiating tones around startup circles and entrepreneurial gatherings.

To tell the truth, the first three years of running my hardware company had gone swimmingly. I initially came up with the idea for Evaptainers at a class at MIT called “Development Ventures.” During the very first lecture, our professor challenged students to come up with a sustainable business solution that “could benefit at least 1 billion people” – an obvious dare meant to provoke out-of-the-box ideas. I remember thinking through of my own experiences working in developing countries and witnessing the high costs of food spoilage for producers and consumers. I also thought of my travels throughout the world, where I saw traditional evaporative cooling devices, such as Zeer Pots, ZECCs and Coolgardie Safes used successfully to address spoilage. My “eureka” moment came when I realized that in Boston, there had to be high-tech materials that could enhance and modernize these traditional devices so that they could be used by more people. In effect, I could create a low-cost refrigerator that ran on nothing but water.

The idea resonated with a lot of people – we quickly won a couple of student business plan awards, got accepted in to a fairly well-known incubator and secured grant funding and partnerships from the likes of USAID, National Geographic and 3M. We also launched our field operations in Morocco, establishing a ground team and eventually conducted pilot tests throughout three different regions in the county. And we engineered and we re-engineered, coming up with 8 different iterations of our prototype while rapidly gathering feedback from our consumers before completing on our finalized version. And so, last year, right around this time, we were truly on top of the world – working prototype in hand, CAD files complete, ready to begin mass manufacturing and officially launch by spring 2017.

Unfortunately, our string of luck would not hold much longer. The first dark omen hinting of our impending hardship appeared last January when one of our contract manufacturers reached out to us, cryptically saying: “we are having some difficulties but still expect to be able to finish the job”.

At the time, I remember our team thinking, “Slight delay, but all is still good.”

In February they reached out again: “still having problems, we will figure it out”. Our team started to get worried.

In March they reached out again: “still having problems, we will figure it out”. Panic began to set in.

And finally in April: “we don’t know how to resolve this manufacturing issue. Sorry”

An Evaptainer is an electricity-free mobile refrigeration unit which runs at low-cost.

Essentially, the problem boiled down to this: our device uses a high tech specialized membrane that has the ability to hold in water while allowing water vapor to pass – this is what allows us to achieve the cooling effect. But our specialized membrane holds itself together through a process called RF welding. And while RF welding itself is fairly straightforward (apply pressure and energy to the surface of two materials and bond them together permanently), its application towards our material was not. We discovered that our material was so thin that applying too much energy would result in holes being burned into our membrane (a definite no-no for something that needs to retain water) and applying too little would cause the two surfaces to not fully bond. This is what our manufacturers could not figure out.

The month of May was our lowest point…that was when our large scale pilot test with USAID was scheduled to commence. Instead, we were stuck with a prototype but no way to mass-produce it. With cash burning from our reserves – seemingly, with our luck – our team elected to buckle down and throw every resource we could muster towards solving the dilemma. We did research on materials welding and discussed entirely changing the production method; we reached out to our networks and our friends, we reached out to our old mentors and new partners. In the end, our scrappy, incorrigible and often nettlesome persistence paid off. Through one of our networks, we discovered an RF welding guru willing to help us out.

Actually, we found “THE” RF welding guru. His name is Vlad and his expertise by far transcends any simple professional knowledge of high frequency welding. In fact, he’s the gentleman who manufactures the complex machines that RF welders themselves use. And he’s been doing it for over 30 years. In Vlad, we found a perfect mentor. I am less certain about what drew him to us – perhaps it was our palpable enthusiasm for the project, his disposition towards our social mission, or just the fact that he was interested in taking on a new challenge; but I am certainly glad that he decided to take our company under his wings. For the last several months, Vlad has kindly hosted us at his workshop, were we come armed with new ideas and thin membranes with the hopes of solving our mass-production hump. I am even happier to announce that in November, we finally fixed the welding issues that plagued us earlier this year.

Now, as we begin planning towards 2018 –a full year behind schedule from where I thought we’d be – I often joke that I should’ve just invented an app. (Apps seem so much quicker and easier in retrospect!). In truth, I wouldn’t give up the struggles of the past year for anything. I think it’s in our struggles that we find our conviction, get a little wiser, and gain the support of new friends. And in truth, until the world figures out how to make 0’s and 1’s provide basic necessities like home lighting, clean cooking or food preservation, I hope there will be people like me, who will come to realize that hardware IS hard…but that in the end, it will all be worth it.

About Evaptainer

Evaptainers are electricity-free mobile refrigeration units which run at low-cost. Utilizing the phenomenon of evaporative cooling, rather than more energy-intensive vapor compression refrigeration, they are ideal for use in off-grid rural areas with low relative humidity. Read more…

About the author

Quang Truong is Co-Founder and CEO of Evaptainer. He has worked on development projects that span from Haiti to Liberia to India to Vietnam, and possesses expertise in M&E, agricultural supply chains and agribusiness. Formerly a consultant at HighQuest Partners, he has worked on projects at NorthStar Agri as well as NGOs such as Catholic Relief Services, ACDI/VOCA and Heifer International. Throughout his career, he recognized a recurring problem in the lack of adequate cold chain infrastructure throughout the developing world.  Quang holds a Master’s of Law and Diplomacy from the Tufts Fletcher School with focuses on International Business and Development Economics.

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