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Source Global Commitment to Providing Safe, Clean Drinking Water

Source Global’s Commitment to Providing Safe, Clean Drinking Water

This episode of Export Nation explores the export journey of SOURCE Global, a technology company focused on providing safe, clean drinking water for industrial, commercial, residential and community relations. Guests include Rob Bartrop, leader of the global business development team at SOURCE Global, and Ruth Soberanes, an international trade specialist from our U.S. Commercial Service Phoenix office.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:02] Rob Bartrop: The two things that I think we’ve been pretty disciplined about, one is being honest with ourselves, where we’re solving a problem and where we’re not. Really zoning in on the markets where that product market fit is the best, it’s typically the best experience for all the stakeholders and not just saying yes to every opportunity. I think a little bit of discipline and preparation goes a long way as far as maximizing the chances of success in a segment or a geography.

[00:00:35] Ruth Soberanes: Yes, I think that’s a really important point to really highlight, and SOURCE did become a certified B corporation, I believe, last year. As they look to support industry to meet their environmental impact goals, I think this is a really great example of how companies can collaborate and work together to solve some of our world’s pressing challenges, not just in terms of providing drinking water to communities that are in need, but also to meet some of those larger climate-related challenges we are facing globally.

[00:01:16] Derrick: On this episode of Export Nation, we explore the export journey of SOURCE Global, a technology company focused on providing safe, clean drinking water for industrial, commercial, residential and community relations. We speak to Rob Bartrop, leader of the global business development team at SOURCE Global, and Ruth Soberanes, an international trade specialist from our U.S. Commercial Service Phoenix office. Rob, thank you for joining. Ruth, thank you for joining as well. If you could, let’s start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your company.

[00:01:53] Rob: Hi, Derrick. Thanks for having me. My name’s Rob Bartrop and I lead the global business development team at SOURCE Global. We are a Phoenix, Arizona-based company that produces a hydropanel which makes clean drinking water from sunlight and air alone. Completely off-grid way of providing a climate resilient form of drinking water. We use that to improve drinking water access and quality for those that don’t have it, about a billion people globally, and also work with companies to help them reduce the amount of plastic they use. Help companies save money, save plastic, and provide clean water to employees and customers.

[00:02:44] Derrick: What was the impetus for the companies starting? Do you know that or are you familiar with?

[00:02:50] Rob: Yes. Our founder, Dr. Cody Friesen is an Arizona-native and studied material science at MIT and actually had a very successful career in renewable energy. He’d always been intrigued by the scarcity of water and essentially pioneered a material science-based approach. He did develop the material that is really efficient at absorbing water out of the air, and then used some of the science of thermodynamics and renewable energy to use energy from the sun to condense that material and effectively allow people to make drinking water where they need it.

Traditionally, water solutions are very much out of the Roman era, where you find bodies of clean water and build big pipelines to shift to people. That hasn’t really worked well for rural communities, tribal communities, and we’re in a situation now where we have got half a trillion single-use plastic bottles every year being used to get people clean water. That technology was pioneered out of Arizona State University here in ASU. Our company, SOURCE has been now active for seven years and exporting this technology to more than 52 different countries.

[00:04:21] Derrick: Oh, wow, that’s an amazing story. Did you start with a global perspective or with the anticipation of going global, knowing that the water’s an issue in so many places around the world?

[00:04:36] Rob: Absolutely. I think from the very start, our company, SOURCE has been very globally-minded. Ironically, water is a global problem, but it’s also a very local problem. While we do very interesting projects in countries like India, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, we also do thousands of homes right here in Arizona where we’ve got more than more than 10,000 homes on Navajo Nation up the road that have no pipes.

One of the things that we pride ourself on is a very global, but also very local solution, where humans need clean drinking water to do anything. We see that problem all over the world. There’s great similarities between the types of challenges that communities face and the types of solutions that we’re advocating that really have a global impact.

[00:05:40] Derrick: Right. How did you connect with the US Commercial Service?

[00:05:45] Rob: Both Cody, our founder, and myself have both come out of the renewable energy industry and have had pretty extensive relationships with the Commercial Service in global markets in the last 15 or 20 years. I would say we brought a healthy level of understanding and respect to this company. For a company like SOURCE, being able to leverage the resources of the Commercial Service really allow us to, from Arizona, get a good sense of what’s happening in other parts of the world. Ruth, our local contact, has been really active in letting us providing an insight into activities, events, trade missions, things like that.

Then linking with the international teams as we started to do more of our go-to market strategy, market analysis, we began designing on areas of the world that we knew were going to be a really good market for our technology. The teams on the ground at the Commercial Service have provided an invaluable resource for us to actually understand who’s who in those markets, what are the trends, what are the activities, and have really supported us in an amazing capacity in the last four or five years as we’ve grown out. We had a pretty good understanding of that, but I also think what we’ve managed to achieve at SOURCE is a great example of how to work with Commercial Service effectively.

[00:07:18] Derrick: Okay. You mentioned being in over 50 countries or so, is there any particular markets that are your strongest?

[00:07:27] Rob: Yes. We’re quite diversified. I think a lot of the work that we do is focused. A lot of the greatest areas of water stress is in water-scarce locations, where the traditional infrastructure solutions aren’t working particularly well.

For us, we’ve had a lot of success in hot and dry places like the Middle East, UAE, Saudi Arabia, various parts of Asia, from Southeast Asia to India. We’ve done a lot of business in Australia, and then we are very active in Latin America, in the Caribbean at the moment as well. Following the hot and dry equatorial nations primarily, but really focused out of those hubs. We now have active offices in Dubai, Singapore, Sydney, and Mexico Citywhere we support those regional teams from.

[00:08:27] Derrick: With all those markets, you must have faced a few hurdles. Any that you can talk about? Any challenges you had to overcome and maybe we helped, maybe we didn’t? Anything like that?

[00:08:39] Rob: Yes. We’re a technology company, but a hard tech company. We’ve got a product. Through the engagement and the market work we did, we were able to find effectively water problems where we knew our technology could be part of the solution. I think from a desktop level, we were able to find really good fits and segments and geographies where there was good demand for our product.

One of the barriers we saw is just the practicalities around that. Navigating importing, installations, contracting licenses, permits, there’s a whole suite of very practical things involved in getting essentially an infrastructure product into a market. One of the strategies we deployed to deal with that was we built a network of more than 100 installation partners who were companies in international markets who we could train as to how to install and maintain our product, who could manage logistics like importing, warehousing, permitting, and help deal with a lot of the complexities of doing international business.

Actually, the Commercial Service’s team played a really a critical role in helping us identify those. Some of the work we did as far as locating business partners in regions was not just focused on the end customers, but also some of these installation partners and distribution partners, who have made that a lot easier. I think that’s a good example of how to do business internationally and stay aware of what we’re good at and what skills we require from third parties to help de-risk international business.

[00:10:31] Derrick: Okay, perfect. Are there key characteristics you look for in partners or anybody you’re doing business with?

[00:10:39] Rob: We do. One of the big things we focus on is solving problems. When we’re looking at companies, we try to find the places where companies are drinking a lot of bottled water and steer away from the places where people are very happily drinking tap water. With corporates, we’ve done a lot of work in hospitality industry, where there’s an expectation that there’s bottled water in rooms, but those big hotel operators are also trying to shift away from plastic. We’ve been lucky enough to do a number of hospitality deals, where we allow hotels to switch and save and replace plastic bottles with an on-site circular water bottling system.

We do the same thing with mining sites, we do the same thing with corporate headquarters in places like India, where there’s thousands of employees drinking from water coolers and five-gallon bottles every day. Yes, we’ve got very much a problem-solving approach to business development, where we’re really partnering with customers to solve their problems, and we’ve found that that is not only a more successful business strategy, but also an easier way to collaborate with commercial services, governments, and companies who are like-minded and try to produce outcomes.

[00:12:02] Ruth: Yes, I think that’s a really important point to really highlight, and SOURCE did become a certified B Corporation, I believe, last year. As they look to support industry to meet their environmental impact goals, I think this is a really great example of how companies can collaborate and work together to solve some of our world’s pressing challenges, not just in terms of providing drinking water to communities that are in need, but also to meet some of those larger climate-related challenges we are facing globally.

[00:12:44] Derrick: Okay. Perfect. I wanted to ask you, are there benefits— This is for Rob, sorry. Are there benefits to your water over the traditional method, like health benefits? Just came up in my head.

[00:13:00] Rob: Yes, there are. I think one of the key differences is that our technology takes water from the atmosphere and we’re able to produce pure water, so effectively distilled water from the atmosphere. We add minerals and then we provide a really high quality of water that’s mineralized, very similar to what you’d find in a premium mineral water bottle.

That is different from other forms of water technology, where you taking it from a ground or a surface water source, like a well or a lake, you’re then cleaning the water and then putting it through lines of infrastructure, sometimes very long distances. It’s typically a much lower quality of water by the time it gets to the faucet at the end of the pipe. That is a pretty key difference. We say globally people attribute a lot more value to the water that they drink than they the water that they wash their car with or the flush their toilet with.

That actually opens an opportunity, which means most of the water people use doesn’t have to be that clean, so there’s a lot of really suitable uses for water, like agriculture and toilets and things like that. You don’t need to be drinking water quality. We leapfrog all that infrastructure, so we allow people to still benefit from that water, but then provide a high-quality water where people live. That attains more value for people, for instance, they can switch away from bottled water because they like the taste and they like the profile. It also provides value in a broader sense. When you look at communities, disproportionately, the water burden falls on vulnerable communities, it falls disproportionately on rural areas, more southern cities, it falls largely on women who do a lot of the walking to fetch water for families.

A lot of the actual impacts of water aren’t just limited to taste and cost, but they actually go to things like education, gender imbalances, resilience of communities to changing climates, and actually a much deeper and more costly set of outcomes than just a superficial one. That’s the kind of root problem that we’re working with developing countries in addressing, is not necessarily just trying to sell to utilities to put through pipes, but trying to get water to people who don’t have pipes and trying to keep people in school, trying to empower communities to spend their time creating more value than just looking for water.

That’s been one of the really big events for us, is really plug into the network of people, trying to solve that broader set of problems, and thankfully have been able to make a lot of traction in places like India, in indigenous communities, in Latin America, in the US, in Australia, and then obviously villages throughout Africa.

[00:16:07] Derrick: With that in mind, what has been maybe one of the most satisfying export experiences you’ve had so far or the company in general? Is there any memorable ones?

[00:16:20] Rob: Yes. We’ve been lucky to have a number. During COVID, the lockdown period in mid-2020, we were thrilled to be able to do more than 1,000 indigenous homes in Australia throughout the lockdown. At the same time did a large community installation in Palawan, the Philippines, and also did more than 500 homes here in Navajo Nation in the US. Those times of need when international supply chains and travel was cut, being able to use our technology to provide strength and resilience into communities that were particularly vulnerable was a really proud moment for us.

One of the other things more related to commercial services that we were very lucky to be involved in was the Trade Winds trip to India in 2019. That for us was the first chapter of what’s been a really active market for us, and so we can go into more detail on some of the examples, but I think from a Commercial Service perspective, there was a lot of success coming out of the Trade Winds India trip in 2019.

[00:17:39] Derrick: Well, tell me about that experience. How was actually there. I don’t know if we may have— Anyways. Tell me [chuckles] about that experience.

[00:17:47] Rob: Yes. I was the loud Australian guy, Derrick. I’m not sure if you remember it or not, but look, we went out there for us. We’d had a couple of distribution relationships and installations in India. I think it was a really good opportunity for us because it wasn’t our first time in the market, but we were still really in the very early stages of trying to figure out what our core strategy would be.

We were able to put a lot of preparation into that Trade Winds event. One of the takeaways I had was how important that month or six weeks leading up to it was in really framing how we’re going to spend our time, which cities we would add on as the extra stops to the New Delhi component, and then really working with the local teams and building a schedule where we were able to add in a number of public sector and private sector players and have a really busy schedule for the week that we were there.

One of the outcomes of that actually was we did our first hospitality project in India off the back of that trip. In the months that followed, we were able to secure an agreement with a five-star hotel in New Delhi to completely remove them from plastic and save them money and replace plastic bottles with renewable drinking water from source panels made on site and bottled in a circular glass bottle. That was something we actually launched in the last couple of weeks. We were able to launch that this year, which has been a really good success story and the start of quite a large pipeline of hospitality and corporate projects in India.

[00:19:43] Derrick: That’s amazing. What did you see as the main benefit? Because you mentioned a lot about preparing, what did you see as the main benefit of attending something like a Trade Winds?

[00:19:55] Rob: I think there’s a couple. There’s no better incentive for a customer to come to a meeting and the US flag on the end of the invite. Just the facilitation by the US government meant that we got the right people from the right companies to come to the meeting. I think that probably saved six months in itself just getting— That’s really a credit to the teams in market that commercial services have that really work hard to get the right people to the meeting.

The other benefit was the meetings take place centrally. A trip to India would normally be two to three meetings per day. On the Trade Winds, we were having 8 to 10 meetings each day because we were able to post up at a central location. It made it really, the week in India, the equivalent of probably 8 or 10 weeks of regular business trips just because of the efficiency. Not only the quality, but the efficiency.

Then I think on the fringes of that was some really engaging content in some of the events and functions. We also got having the secretary of Commerce come out meant that a lot of the really key stakeholders on both sides were there. We got to meet some really interesting US companies doing great things in that part of the world and got the opportunity to compare notes and share experiences about the market and actually offered quite a lot of time for collaborations on the sidelines. Actually, for us, we were also building out our team at the time. It’s also a really good way to get a feel for talent in the market and practical ways to help set up your business and build a team in the new market.

[00:21:48] Derrick: Great. Ruth, what are you saying to clients who may have never attended something like Trade Winds? Do you see any differentiation between what happens at Trade Winds versus some of the other trade missions?

[00:22:05] Ruth: Yes, thank you. Well, I think Rob couldn’t have said it better; quality, efficiency. This is our largest US government-led trade mission and business development forum, and next year in 2022, we are excited to have not only our teams locally within the UAE join us and all their companies, but also other commercial diplomats and team members from over 20 countries within the region, including the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub Saharan Africa.

To Rob’s point, regarding having an opportunity where everyone’s centrally located and you can be as efficient with your meetings as possible. That’s really what we’re trying to do. After a year and a half of not being able to see each other in person and travel together, this is just a great opportunity for all of us to reconvene and have really successful trade mission.

[00:23:19] Rob: I think to that point, Ruth, as well, one of the things that was different about Trade Winds was having all the representatives from the other regions there from the US Commercial Service’s team. While sometimes local teams in market can handle local business, it’s really appealing for a global executive to go on the Trade Winds trip, given the high level of meetings, but also the fact that it’s really interesting relationship building with the commercial services people from other regions. We found it gave us a lot of momentum in other regions outside of India, just as a chance to get some face time. I think that was a really appealing elements as well.

[00:24:05] Derrick: Okay. Just about two or three more questions and then we’ll end here. As you go into this next Trade Winds, do you feel like there was any missed opportunities with the Indo-Pacific Trade Winds that you went on in India that you’re looking to take advantage of or any missed opportunities that you’re like, “Maybe I should focus on this this go around”?

[00:24:29] Rob: Yes. I think one of the learnings from Indo-Pacific was really that we could probably be pushed harder to learn more and do more. I think a lot of our Indo-Pacific experience took place in two cities. In this time, not only are we going to a regional hub like Dubai, but we’re also going to add a couple of new markets after that, and so it’ll be a much bigger range of countries, I think a lot more learning and probably a lot more customer meetings.

Part of that is it will mean even more preparation and making sure that the right colleagues and people from in-market participate to allow ourselves to fully engage in the experience. I definitely think we’ll be more prepared and know what’s coming this time, but hopefully, it the good experiences will be replicated.

[00:25:29] Derrick: Perfect. Then along that same line of thinking, and just in general, not necessarily with Trade Winds, any pieces of advice you would offer to other companies that are either at a similar stage of exporting like you or just beginning their journey?

[pause 00:25:45]

[00:27:30] Derrick: Perfect. Here’s one for you and Ruth. Ruth, I know we’ve done some companies from Arizona before on the podcast, but I don’t know if we’ve ever dived into potentially the unique benefits of exporting from Arizona. Maybe you could briefly talk about that, and Rob, you too, feel free.

[00:27:53] Ruth: Well, Arizona is just strategically located in the Southwest region of the United States and it has a really close proximity not only to the ports in California, but also just south of the border in Mexico and in Canada. Really, historically, Arizona has had close commercial links with both of those countries. When you look at the Western hemisphere and North America as a whole, Arizona has quite a strong competitive advantage to be exporting from this area.

I think particularly in terms of technology – as well, this is a growing hub for tech companies. There’s been quite a concerted effort, and really, all levels of government, the private sector, the universities, et cetera, have come together to really support this innovation ecosystem, to continue to drive that innovation, and the transfer of that innovation, and essentially eventually the export and the selling of that, commercialization of that technology to other parts of the world.

Of course, being in Arizona, you have the ‘made in US’ brand, which continues to be very strong around the world. Rob mentioned it recently, it helps to have the US government facilitate meetings, but also, it helps to have the ‘made in America’ brand as well.

[00:29:38] Rob: Derrick, just one additional comments to that, the secret that Arizona has that Ruth didn’t mention is Ruth herself, where, quite honestly, we were lucky enough to deal with Ruth previously in the City of Phoenix and now in Commercial Services. What that means is that she has been a really key partner in helping us navigate the different countries, the different events, and providing a sense of continuity across the events.

I think from my side and from our global business development team, really, it helped improve our understanding of how commercial services and the US government more broadly can play a role in supporting exports, supporting business growth, and helping align various types of policy objectives with US technology succeeding internationally. The dedication and communication skills have been very valuable and I’m sure a big advantage to the State of Arizona.

[00:30:45] Ruth: That’s very kind. Thank you, Rob. That’s too generous.

[00:30:49] Derrick: That’s awesome. As we end here, Rob, maybe you could tell us where people could link up with you and your company or whatever kind of contact information you’re willing to give. Keep in mind, we’ll send this to about 300,000 people.


[00:31:09] Rob: Yes. Our company is called SOURCE Global. Our website is www.source.co. We have a lot of places on the website where we are looking for people to collaborate, both from the customer side, helping companies reduce plastic, helping communities access clean drinking water, always looking for people that can help us with our business in international market, partners, collaborators, very much actively hiring here in Arizona and in international markets. Anyone who’s interested in the things we’ve talked about, using technology to improve outcomes internationally, please get in touch with us. We would love to find a way to work together and help solve some problems.

[00:32:02] ?Derrick: This podcast is intended to provide information that may be of assistance to US companies. Statements made by Export Nation podcast’s guests reflect the views and opinions of that individual. This podcast does not constitute an endorsement by the US commercial service of the individual, his or her employer, or affiliated entity. The specific information provided, resources mentioned, or products or services endorsed or offered by that individual and his or her employer or affiliated entity.

The US Commercial Service assumes no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided by the guest or for the decisions made in reliance on any information provided by the guest in this podcast. The information provided in this podcast does not constitute legal advice. Thank you for listening to this episode of Export Nation brought to you by the US Commercial Service. For more information on how you can get started exporting, please visit www.trade.gov.

[00:33:07] [END OF AUDIO]