By Mark Tarnacki
Growing up between pristine Lake George and the polluted Hudson River in Queensbury, N.Y., men's golf alumnus Colin Gaunt '19 found himself thinking and caring a lot about the benefits of clean water. Now his Saint Michael's College student experiences have put him in a position to do something about it on a potentially global scale.
Selected for a coveted Maker-in-Residence spot at Burlington's Generator facility for May/June, which in turn led to his selection for their Jump Start Entrepreneurship program, Gaunt is developing an affordable, portable device that uses ultraviolet (UV) light delivered by efficient LED technology to disinfect water on an individual or family-sized scale. It would mean that a well-developed pressurized water infrastructure no longer would be a prerequisite for widely available clean water, which would be a game-changer in many parts of the world. Gaunt calls his device the "Sipping Safe" since it would be roughly the size of a small safe with the purpose of making water "safe" to drink.
He said his inspiring environmental studies classes and professors at Saint Michael's led him to seek more focus concerning clean water through a summer internship with the federal Food and Drug Administration's Office of Food Additive Safety in Washington, D.C., after his sophomore year, crystallizing his passion for the topic; the following academic year, back at St. Mike's after that summer work, he made optimal use of the College's campus MakerSpace in the Dion Family Student Center, tapping astute mentoring from that facility's director, Eric Roy, who helped him leverage his background to score the Generator opportunities.
In the couple months since his May 2019 graduation he is trying to take his project to the next level, and, fortuitously, finds himself in the position to do so. He's living in Burlington and working full days at the Generator through June on a Jump Start stipend, while loving every aspect of the experience.
"When I first came to St. Mike's I chose environmental science as my major since I thought something in the biological realm would be of interest, but it turned out environmental studies is what I liked because it is so interdisciplinary," he said of his academic trajectory. "Liberal Arts -- taking everything from philosophy to religious studies, really opens you to different perspectives and views, and that's so important – for instance, Professor Delanty in the English Department is really a big environmentalist, which was another insight and perspective for me."
He first heard of the FDA internship when a St. Mike's science professor sent around an email about the opportunity. "I applied the first day and I got it, so I was excited," said Gaunt, who ended up living in Maryland that summer working in a lab facility while commuting into D.C. once a week to the main FDA offices. During the internship, he researched water disinfection chemicals and came to better understand their limitations.
"They are really useful, but they also leave residual harmful chemicals in water at times and I always was curious of how to remove it," he said. "I looked at alternative ways to disinfect water in the same way, and always had this idea of UV light and LED technology in the back of my mind."
After his post-sophomore-year summer internship, Gaunt wasn't finished seeking out horizon-expanding and water-centric St. Mike's experiences: In spring of 2018, his junior year, he did a Sea Semester through Boston University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, traveling 3,800 nautical miles aboard a 120-foot research sailing vessel from New Zealand to French Polynesia, with 22 students and full-time onboard staff scientists. "It was one of the most rigorous programs I've ever done between the academics and learning to operate a sailboat, but it was an incredible experience," said Gaunt, whose crewmates were from many countries around the world.
"I had not been on a sailboat before that, so our skill levels ran the gamut from some collegiate sailors to those with no experience like me," he said, adding that now, with his new skills, he sails in a regatta. Thankfully, he said, he already was in pretty good shape for the rigors of sailing as a member of the St. Mike's varsity golf team for four years, and also a frequent and enthusiastic skier.
One day "on a whim" in the MakerSpace following his FDA internship, he mentioned his idea of using UV light as an alternative to water-purifying chemicals to Eric Roy, who was very encouraging. "He said it was a cool idea with humanitarian impact and he would love to get behind it – and also, that he knew another place off campus with more resources to better design it," Gaunt recalls.
Roy encouraged Gaunt to apply for a "Maker-In-Residence" Program at the Generator space. The facility is near Oakledge Park along Burlington's south-end waterfront. "I had not known about it, but soon learned they have collaborative programs with UVM and Champlain too and were just starting to work with St. Mike's," he said. Saint Michael's President Lorraine Sterritt has fully supported expanding such opportunities for students in coming semesters and years.
Gaunt said the market niche he is trying to fill with the Sipping Safe is "a family unit essentially," explaining, "there already are products that can give water to 1,000 people really well or to one person fairly well, but there isn't a product that can give water to a family of 6 to 12 without a plumbing network of some kind." His device would not need to be pressurized like many existing devices, which is another big advantage. "I'm thinking of any developing nation or city that doesn't have access to a steady plumbing system," he said.
The Sipping Safe he envisions will be "a little smaller than a shoebox" and will decrease turbidity and make water safe to drink by killing viruses and bacteria. He said humanitarian organizations often send things like filters to communities they serve, but those items lack technology "to get water-borne viruses out, so people still get sick off the water that's supposed to be clean."
Gaunt is extravagant in his praise for Generator employees Jake Blend and Elliot Katz, the rapid "prototyping shop head" and the "shop operations manager, wood shop and metal shop head" respectively, among many others. "One of the things I like best is how everyone down there will pitch in to help everyone else," he said of the perhaps dozen people each day he finds at the facility this summer -- "from graphic designers to carpenters to professional artists, electrical engineers and game designers, I've met those and everything in between," he said, "so I've been exposed to a lot of cool things and am learning things I never would have considered learning."
Through his work for the Sipping Safe project he has "gotten really good at a 3D modeling system" and is developing skills using 3D-modeling software to prototype parts as he examines "different ways for water to flow through a matrix – a prism through light for maximum disinfection ability." He also is learning software related to printed circuit boards that can power the LEDS in his device. Using the emergent technology of UV LED lights avoids the problematic fragility of earlier UV glass tubes, he said.
Generator's JumpStart program, which is funding him for his current summer work, is an entrepreneurship-focused program that selects up to eight makers with great product ideas for its eleven-week session. Jump/Start entrepreneurs are given free 24/7 access to Generator makerspace, a $1,000 stipend and free tool training classes to help them refine their product prototype aided by Generator's expert shop leads.
"I just want to make something that helps people and if this program gets me to the point where I can keep working on it I will gladly accept it," he said. "We'll see where it leads." Long-term, Gaunt would like to explore a career in environmental consulting, "but this is a really cool passion project for now and at a time when I have the most freedom I'll ever have in my life."