In 2007, Paul Polak established Windhorse International, a private company with the goal of creating social ventures benefitting 100 million people or more. The first project of this innovative company was Spring Health, aimed at bringing clean drinking water to underserved populations in India. The idea was to sell clean and healthy water from tanks in rural villages where the free water was contaminated. A pilot project was established in a village called Orissa because of the high percentage of bacterial contamination in the water. The pilot immediately ran into trouble, with potential customers preferring to continue drinking the contaminated dirty water and refusing to pay for the clean water.
Polak and Jacob Mathew, CEO of Spring Health, used the principles of design thinking to understand who the customer was and how he could best be served. In conversations with villagers, they understood that the local population was not sufficiently aware of the dangers of the local water supply. A series of long conversations with a local woman whose husband suffered from chronic diarrhea revealed that the village doctor had told her the problem originated in his excessive tea drinking. In fact, he was suffering from the bacteria in the water and was drinking tea because it was the only food he could keep down.
Polak and Mathew realized from this in-depth interview that their customers were unaware of the benefits of their product and that the key to success was convincing them that the local water supply was unsafe and that paying for water was in their best interests. They initiated a program in which families could test their water and compare it with the Spring Health water, by leaving samples of both in petri dishes overnight. When they saw the bacteria which emerged in the local water, they gained a new understanding of its dangers. Spring Health also marketed their water as a money-saver. They showed families that between fees for medical treatment and loss of income, they were spending more than they would if they bought clean drinking water.
These strategies worked and the Spring Health customer base grew, but they soon realized that there was an untapped market consisting of Harijan households. These families were considered by the other villagers to be of a lower impure caste and their houses were more run down than the others. Upon investigation, it transpired that the Harijans had initially bought water, but once a water tank was emptied and purified after a Harijan accidentally touched it, they stopped buying water in order not to cause trouble. Once again, Spring Health had to apply design thinking in order to understand its customers. Once they realized they couldn’t sell water to the Harijans from the village tank, they instituted a water delivery service which brought the water directly to the Harijans’ homes. This service was so popular that soon other villagers were requesting delivery despite the higher cost.
Spring Health is a truly innovative company. In addition to utilizing a deep understanding of its customer base to solve logistical issues, the concept of social change through a for-profit model is a truly original idea. Since Spring Health earns revenue it is able to expand and reach more people without having to rely on donations or grants. The company currently operates in 200 villages but has the potential to reach 100 million people – or more – and contribute greatly to the health of poor rural populations around the world.
At Triode, we specialize in developing new products and services for complex industries like medical devices and transportation. We work with you closely to help define product strategy, with an emphasis on reducing the risks associated with innovating in these sophisticated and often regulated consumer-oriented environments.
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