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A Designer and a Biochemist Walk Into a Yurt


Inventions that disconnect


A Designer and a Biochemist Walk Into a Yurt

Gary Gurevich

Grayl's Kickstarter campaign for their third-generation water cleaning bottle - the Ultralight - wrapped up in March, beating their funding goal by 9x, with more than two thousand pre-orders. This thing is a miracle that can supply travelers with endless clean water, and will help end plastic pollution. 

Should you get one? Yes - it's a must-have for a survival bag or weekend backpack on a long hike. As the name suggests, the Ultralight is lightweight, and there's a thoughtful backpack attachment, lauded by Grayl's community of backers. Here's where you can buy one - they're just beginning to ship now.

Grayl's story is an interesting one. It illustrates how two regular humans combined their talents to solve some of Earth’s most urgent problems, and how they took their company’s products from good to great.

A designer and a biochemist walk into a yurt

Once upon a time, Nancie Weston - a designer of outdoor gear - drank from a crystal-clear stream in the Cascade Mountains, north of Portland, OR. It probably tasted great, but the stream was contaminated with giardia parasites, which made the rest of her journey very uncomfortable. Between fits of feverish vomiting, the idea for Grayl (as in ‘holy grail’) came into focus.

Nancie teamed up with biochemist Travis Merrigan to design the first version of Grayl’s proprietary water cleaning system called The Water Filtration Cup, a combination of a sturdy water bottle and a reusable filtration cartridge, which uses several multi-syllabic natural processes to prepare water for drinking. The spiel is impressive - here it is, direct from Grayl’s Kickstarter page:

...electroadhesion and ion exchange create a powerful submicron trap for pathogens (viruses, bacteria and protozoan cysts). Additionally, the purifier media contains many embedded layers of ultra-powdered activated carbon which create a large surface area for removing toxins like chemicals and heavy metals.  Silver treated zeolites, a natural antimicrobial, inhibit growth and keeps the purifier fresh between uses.

Following the advent of Grayl’s initial Water Filtration Cup, which is now called the Legend, Grayl continued to iterate on the idea. They listened to user feedback, and inched toward a more perfect execution of their mission. This all led to a successful Kickstarter for the Ultralight.

Two of the world’s most urgent problems

Nancie & Travis aimed high. They wanted to solve two giant problems:

  1. Plastic waste: People tend to consume bottled water (wasteful) when water is perceived to be unsafe to drink. To American travelers, that’s EVERYWHERE outside of the US, and maybe Texas. This produces mountains of plastic waste, which will take many lifetimes to biodegrade - poisoning fragile ecosystems along the way.
  2. A simple way to purify water: Existing backpack-ready water purification systems tend to be cumbersome. They often involve batteries, tubes, bobbers, straws, pumps, and bungee cords to hold it all together.

It’s common knowledge that the safest way to drink tap or well water is to boil it. Because boiling water isn’t a portable solution, people tend to rely on plastic bottles. That’s four ounces of plastic waste per human, per day. Goodbye planet. Inversely, an Ultralight bottle, even though it’s plastic, is meant to be reused forever. The only disposable piece is the Purifier Cartridge, which can be used 300 times before replacement (that’s in place of 300 disposable plastic bottles).

What product innovation looks like

When we caught up with Travis via Google Hangouts, he spoke with us from Grayl’s small office in Seattle, WA. Noticing the boxes behind him, I asked if he was in the shipping room, and he laughed. Everything looks like a shipping room - they’re a tiny hardware startup with runaway demand. Over 3 years of iteration on already good idea, it looks like they’ve found an ideal product-market fit.

Travis and The Last Machine crew via Google Hangout

Travis and The Last Machine crew via Google Hangout

We wanted to know how the design of Grayl’s products evolved. Like… why did they evolve, and what was that decision tree? To explain Grayl’s evolution, Travis placed the three main products on a table in front of him.

Product #1: The Legend (developed 2013)

We started off thinking we’re going to make the slickest, most beautiful unit in the world - and I think we got pretty close. What it also is, is kind of heavy.
— Travis
Grayl Legend

Grayl Legend

Grayl took the ‘no plastic’ idea to heart and The Legend is their purist approach to the concept. Weighing 1.3 lbs. and constructed of stainless steel, with an intricately designed water-tight mechanism at the top, the Legend Is definitely Grayl's premium product. Nancie & Travis instinctively designed it to be sleek and beautiful, using the highest quality materials available. The Legend, priced at $89.95, is the one that the founders enjoy using at home.

Learnings: It’s OK to specialize with an ideal use-case in mind, and use that to slim down the customization options. 

Product # 2: The Quest (developed 2014)

Simplify: you can’t be all things to all people.
— Travis
Grayl Quest

Grayl Quest

“We learned early on that it’s okay to specialize with an ideal use-case in mind….” said Travis.  In 2014, Grayl took customer feedback that probably sounded like “Hey, the product is beautiful, but I take it hiking, and it’s kind of heavy,” and decided to lighten the product by using high-density plastics. Weighing just 1 lb., The Quest, priced at $79.95, is also relatively affordable.

Learnings: Make the lid simple & unbreakable. Hikers often requested an attachment for a carabiner.

Product # 3: The Ultralight (developed 2015)

Pick what you’re absolutely best at, and focus like a laser on that. And then go find your customers with your very best product.
— Travis
Grayl Ultralight

Grayl Ultralight

2,300 pre-orders don’t lie, and very seldom does accompanying community feedback. Speaking with Travis, his enthusiasm about the Ultralight was unmistakable.  Grayl constructed the Ultralight using polypropylene - a plastic  often used to make baby bottles.

Having heard community feedback throughout 2015, which probably included several variations of "This works great, but can be more travel-friendly", Grayl included some thoughtful backpack attachments. When combined with the Ultralight's compact size, the backpack attachments make this a very portable unit. The Ultralight is available on Grayl's website, and is carried by enthusiastic outdoor gear retailers
like REI.

Our core customers are more active, they’re outdoors, they’re traveling internationally.
— Travis

What's next

Grayl’s positive experience with the Kickstarter community has encouraged the founders to take even bolder steps to solving plastic pollution. So what are they working on now?

Addressing feedback from early users of the Ultralight, Grayl is developing a larger version of their most popular bottle. They’re also working on rolling out a mail-in recycling program for their Purification Cartridges, where users can mail-in their used cartridges (typically after 300 uses) in exchange for fresh ones. This effectively reduces Grayl’s plastic waste footprint to zero, and gives users a reason to truly feel like their choice to buy Grayl products has a positive impact on the environment. Although Grayl hasn’t announced a launch date, they expect this program to kick-off sometime in Q4 of 2016.