When Jim Hill committed to cleaning the water for a small town in northern Argentina, he had no clue how to get it done, but he was driven by the “why.”
During an initial trip in 2004, he learned that some 6,000 people in the dusty outpost of San Antonio de los Cobres had been drinking arsenic-tainted water for decades.
The pastor and director of His Heart Missions was also a grandfather, which spurred a nagging question: “What kind of man allows his neighbor’s granddaughter to drink arsenic?”
“We knew nothing about arsenic, and we still don’t know much,” Mr. Hill said in a later meeting with Duluth-based AdEdge Technologies, a Georgia company with innovative water filtration systems.
He did know that arsenic, a naturally occurring element that sometimes seeps into groundwater, can be deadly when consumed even in minuscule amounts over a long period of time.
Especially prevalent in mountainous areas, arsenic often results in deadly bladder, kidney or skin cancer, sometimes marking victims with black spots that can see them ostracized from their communities.
When Mr. Hill met with AdEdge, he got heartening news: The problem wasn’t hard to fix. But it would require tens of thousands of dollars and installation expertise, both of which were in short supply in Argentina’s northwestern Salta province.
The story’s happy ending after a seven-year odyssey from North Carolina to northern Argentina is told in “Troubled Waters”, a documentary produced by Mr. Hill’s son.
Starring in the film’s climactic installation scenes in 2011 are provincial water authorities from Aguas del Norte and employees of AdEdge.
One of those was Greg Gilles, vice president and principal, a Christian who said Mr. Hill’s vision aligned with his philosophy and the company’s purpose.
“We’re about making a difference and doing something bigger than ourselves,” Mr. Gilles told Global Atlanta during a coffee meeting in Santiago, Chile, in 2015.
To Chile and Beyond
Mr. Gilles was already weighing projects in Chile, Argentina’s neighbor, when AdEdge was approached by Mr. Hill in 2010.
The company had joined the Georgia Department of Economic Development at ExpoMin in 2011. The state’s Santiago office had researched the market’s potential and set up meetings with potential business partners.
AdEdge knew about arsenic in South America; Chile and Argentina have long been the subject of research around standards for maximum acceptable levels in drinking water.
“What we didn’t know was whether there was enough regulatory impetus to actually make things happen,” Mr. Gilles said.
Turns out, utilities in Chile had until the end of 2015 to implement strict new standards. AdEdge formed a partnership with Aqualogy, a water consultancy owned by French environmental giant Suez, and over the next few years won multiple contracts with Aguas Andinas, the country’s largest water utility serving about half its 16 million people. AdEdge systems now even filter the water at the Santiago airport.
Those types of partnerships, Mr. Gilles said, are vital to overseas success.
“It’s extremely costly, time-consuming and difficult to break into a new market in a foreign country like this without having a partner on the ground,” said Mr. Gilles, who praised Chile’s clean business climate. “I’m totally convinced that that’s the key — a partner you can trust, a partner that complements you, that has similar core values.”
That’s why AdEdge has targeted places like Canada and Chile, where there is less “gamesmanship” than in places like Brazil and China, added Rich Cavagnaro, AdEdge’s CEO
AdEdge was burned in China early on, but that didn’t sour the company on exports overall. Now, about 40 percent of its business is international, helping spur a 2015 move to a larger headquarters and factory in Duluth.
The global market has been differentiator, as AdEdge’s 15-20 U.S. competitors tend to focus on dominating domestically.
“We want to be just as aggressive in Illinois as we are in India one day,” Mr. Cavagnaro said, but in the meantime, the global market has more opportunities than AdEdge can pursue. “Our [exporting] success really is going to create competitors, and we have too stay aggressive.”
AdEdge systems can be found in more than 15 countries, sometimes off the beaten path. One system is deployed in Nigeria, another in Indonesia. AdEdge’s WaterPODs, modified shipping containers with turnkey filtration systems packed insight, have made it easier to find customers in faraway places.
India Targeted Through Export Assistance
India has also become an especially important target. In the 2016 Atlanta Metro Export Challenge, AdEdge took home $5,000 to support its overseas sales.
In a pitch competition, Mr. Cavagnaro vied for $20,000 more to bolster its outreach in India, which the company says has more than 150 million people drinking water with elevated arsenic levels — making it the largest problem area globally along with Bangladesh. AdEdge had already begun a pilot demonstration plant in the state of West Bengal and sought to replicate the process in other states.
AdEdge became a top-five finalist, but didn’t win the extra cash. The India venture has progressed apace anyway. Last year, AdEdge India was formed through a joint venture with the India arm of InNow LLC, a company that helps take U.S. water treatment firms to India. The West Bengal plant came online last November, and other states like Bihar, Assam and Punjab are in process.
Between the chamber and the state, plus a little help in financing from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, AdEdge is a prime example of how a mid-sized company can capitalize on resources that cost little to nothing.
“I think we’re a good example of [export assistance] working,” said Mr. Gilles, who was entertaining possible deal with Kazakhstan. “It may not be working elsewhere, but it’s working with us.”
Finding the Right People
Treating arsenic with adsorption — the process of removing contaminants by chemically binding them to specially calibrated media — is a “door-opener,” but its just one in a diverse set of products. AdEdge systems also use oxidation, membranes and even biological filtration employing “good” bacteria to digest waste and clean water.
Finding the right people to keep these highly technical processes going is difficult, as the number of trained engineers and technicians in the sector dwindles.
“We have good-paying jobs and they’re hard to fill,” Mr. Cavagnaro said. “You can’t imaging the time I spend for recruiting.”
The problem is compounded by a dearth of foreign language skills necessary to vet inquiries and help with overseas installations.
Mr. Gilles said projects like the one in Argentina can help, improving the company’s culture by driving passion and purpose. The system deployed in San Antonio de Los Cobres, it’s estimated, could double the community’s life expectancy in a matter of decades.
“You think about that, and you go, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’”