A Thirst For A Better World
What would you do if you saw a child drinking water the colour of mud in a rural village in Cambodia?
Most people would have given their own bottled water to the child, or handed him some cash.
NUS Environmental Engineering alumnus Lim Chong Tee invented a water filtration system to help not just one, but whole villages of children and their families living without access to clean water!
Together with fellow NUS alumni David Pong and Vincent Loka, Chong Tee set up a social enterprise, WateROAM, with a vision to build a world where no one has to face prolonged thirst.
WateROAM provides portable water filtration systems that are suitable for use in rural communities and disaster-relief operations. To date, these water solutions have transformed the lives of 70,000 people across 23 countries – no mean feat for a start-up that is only four years old.
While the decision to study Environmental Engineering and set up WateROAM was a direct result of his heart-wrenching experience in Cambodia, Chong Tee had harboured the entrepreneurial dream for a long time, albeit subconsciously.
As a child, he had always been amazed by scientists and inventors. Seeing how engineers bring machines to life never failed to impress him too. “I always imagined that it would be really cool to be able to do something on my own one day,” he shared.
Growing up in a big family with limited means further sharpened his creative instinct. Instead of lamenting the lack of new toys, he treasured the pre-loved ones that his mother occasionally brought home for him and his three brothers, even if they were not in working order.
“I’d usually spend some time after school trying to make them functional again, using whatever materials that were available like UHU Glue or cardboard. Most of the time, I made things worse,” he conceded, but whenever he succeeded, he would experience “immense joy”.
From “reviving” old toys, the resourceful boy graduated to creating more complex items, such as an aquarium made from materials discarded at the junk corner at the bottom of his HDB block. All this practice stood him in good stead and paved the way for the birth of WateROAM.
After enrolling in NUS, Chong Tee found himself having to juggle studies and work. Not wanting to put more financial strain on his father, he taught multiple tuition classes every week to earn his own allowance.
He was very active in school too, taking on various leadership roles such as class representative, faculty dance I/C and co-curricular activity I/C. He also put his heart into mentoring international students and gave free tuition to underprivileged children.
The NUS Donated Bursary helped to bring some balance to his university life.
“I was extremely thankful and consoled to receive the award. With the bursary, I was able to give fewer tuition classes every week, put my energy into developing both academic, technical and entrepreneurial skills, and have more time with my family on weekends.
“The bursary really meant a lot to me,” said Chong Tee.
The financial aid also addressed a concern that his parents had: that with so much on his plate, he might not have enough time to study. “The bursary really lightened my burdens,” he said. “My parents were also very grateful for that.”
Much of the precious time that the bursary afforded him was spent at Yusof Ishak House with the co-founders of WateROAM, David and Vincent, whom he met in his second year through programmes organised by the university.
David was from NUS Business School and brought his marketing savvy to the table while Vincent, a fellow Engineering student, took care of the technical side of things. But what really bound the three together was their common ambition to build a world where every person has access to clean drinking water.
So in 2014, WateROAM was born. Chong Tee took on the role of Chief Marketing Officer; David became the Chief Executive Officer while Vincent served as Chief Technology Officer.
The entrepreneurial journey has not been easy. Even with numerous awards under their belt, the team still faces fresh challenges with every new humanitarian outreach effort.
Chong Tee recounted an incident in one of their earlier field trips, “One of our teammates broke his back while moving the prototype we built. Because of that, he had to undergo a surgery which really took a toll on the morale of the team.”
That was when they realised that they needed to design a system that was a lot lighter and portable to be able to reach the rural poor.
Instead of letting this get them down, the team poured their effort into creating a better product. Today, the ROAMfilterTM Plus weighs just 2.5kg and can be carried in a backpack.
WateROAM may have come a long way, but its founders are not resting on their laurels. They are constantly gathering feedback from the ground to improve their products, and also seek the support of like-minded individuals and organisations.
As Chong Tee put it, “With two billion people still lacking access to clean water worldwide, our journey has just begun.”