Editor’s Note: Brittany Kendrick is a winner of The Story Exchange’s first annual Women In Science Incentive Prize.
Brittany Kendrick grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was always aware of water – she was given water quality testing strips for Christmas one year to evaluate the high levels of water contamination in her neighborhood. When her parents discovered the problem, they began buying bottled water, and eventually moved out of the neighborhood to an area where water wasn’t a concern.
Water intersected with her life path in other ways, too – she attended a high school that specializes in agricultural sciences, engineering and animal sciences. She didn’t think about water quality as her life’s calling at that point, recalls Kendrick, “but whenever I had a chance to participate in an innovation challenge, I gravitated towards water.”
Kendrick started working for the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that serves as environmental engineers, as well as pursuing a master’s degree at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. That’s when she started to take water seriously as a future challenge.
One class project led her to work with a group of public policy students to evaluate an atmospheric water generator – a device that could suck moisture from the air. Kendrick was responsible for the project’s water quality testing, and when it wrapped up, she told her classmates that she thought they had a real business opportunity. “They were just interested in finishing their thesis,” she remembers.
The equipment from the project was laying around on a rooftop lab space in Brooklyn – abandoned by the other students – and Kendrick picked up the items to start tinkering with them to create something new.
In 2019, she co-founded Hydronomy, a company that creates solar-powered water generators to deliver clean water to people who need it. The units capture moisture from the air and then filter it, churning out more than 10 gallons of water each day on average. Kendrick says they end up less costly than paying for water from the utility company, and create no carbon emissions.
Water and energy need to be considered together, she says – right now creating clean water relies on fossil fuels. Centrally located water systems are costly and can lack redundancy – in times of extreme weather conditions, if one pipe fails, the whole system fails. In Texas earlier this year, the water system broke down at the same time as the power grid failed: the two were inextricably tied to each other.
That’s why Hydronomy’s system is decentralized, off-the-grid and based in individual households, especially Black and brown neighborhoods, intended to address the environmental racism these communities suffer. New York State Parks will test some of their hydration stations with Hydronomy in a proof pilot program. Kenrdick says they plan to build brand awareness about the water they are providing, and then eventually scale to households in a public-private partnership. “My co-founders and I are from areas that are afflicted by these challenges,” she says, and that drives them to improve the situation. “Our intent is that the people who are the most vulnerable get the product first.”
Water advocacy is another passion for Kendrick – she wants people to know where their water comes from. A long term goal is to get more access, more cost savings and encourage people to really understand their water quality and scarcity. “How do we all get together to talk about this utility that continues to rise in cost and also make us sick?” she says. “We’d love to spearhead, but can’t do it on our own.”