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.”
This post was originally published on Dec. 8, 2021, and updated to include a video.
Brittany: We take water for granted. 30 million people are without access to clean drinking water in the United States, and it's like, “Well, I know I got water. What do you mean? Who is that? It’s not me.”
TITLE: Brittany Kendrick - Co-Founder - Hydronomy - 2021 Women in Science Incentive Prize Winner
Brittany: People who are located in rural areas who primarily rely on private well water. And what happens when that well water runs dry? In cities where you have predominantly Black, poor residents you have pipelines, which are aging, are leaching lead into the water before it arrives to your home.
TEXT: Newlab - Brooklyn, New York
Brittany SOT: We do have a bit of an increase in copper, which can be a little alarming.
Brittany: The mission of Hydronomy is to eradicate water scarcity and water insecurity. Units are capable of serving single-family households. So it allows families to generate and source their water on site at their homes with an off-grid technology device.
Brittany: We utilize a solar-powered system that will capture moisture in the air and convert it into clean drinking water, which can be used for bathing, cleaning, and drinking.
TEXT: The unit will provide a family of four with about 300 gallons a day.
Brittany: We've been facilitating the capturing and moisturing, filtering of water with ingredients. Now we're ready to create one Hydronomy unit, here in Newlabs.
TEXT: Brittany founded Hydronomy in 2019 with Xavier Henderson and Korey Salter.
Brittany SOT: And we're doing like, sample testing on what the exterior shell will look like, what type of material is best? What is the artistic or aesthetic features that we want to apply? Right now we're just going to go through with milling or manufacturing.
Brittany SOT: So I give it like a strong mans turn.
Teacher SOT: Yeah. Perfect. All right, so we're going to load this tool, right? Yes. Okay.
TEXT: Brittany first started thinking about water when she was a child growing up in the south side of Chicago.
Brittany: My very first introduction around water insecurity or water scarcity was a Chicago Tribune article that came out about water quality in Chicago pipes. I remember my parents stating, like, "Hey, we're not drinking this water anymore. We're going to start drinking distilled water." And that was the beginning of, what's the difference of drinking the tap water, and now we're buying bottled water?
TEXT: At school, Brittany loved science and math. She got her bachelor’s from St Louis University in 2015 and joined the Army Corps of Engineers.
Brittany: I primarily design blueprints of large water-related infrastructure such as levees or floodwalls. I also design stormwater management plans. So how do we mitigate as well as collect stormwater? How are we handling and introducing that water so it's not overwhelming our sewer system?
TEXT: While working full-time, Brittany earned her master’s at New York University and first experimented with the portable water units that became Hydronomy.
TEXT: Brittany and her partners are now courting investors, completing data, setting up manufacturing.
Woman SOT: This is delicious. This is really delicious.
TEXT: Brittany faces challenges her partners don’t.
Brittany: Being a woman, and not just a woman but a Black woman, that is working in STEM…it is incredibly difficult because, one, I'm prejudged about, do I know what I'm talking about? Do I have the competency level? Do I have even the access to the networks that I need to support me?
Brittany: I try not to hold onto it, but there are very vivid moments in my career that I was like, "There's no other reason why this is happening. It's because I'm a Black woman." I don't fold to it. You should value me and my perspective because it adds to the texture of how we consider water, how I've lived through water, and how my community lives through water. Within five years, I hope that Hydronomy is deployed first and foremost in cities that are challenged, and stricken with the water crises; where the large population is Black and brown people.
Brittany SOT: Lefty, loosey. This symbolizes like a river because our air and our water flows in curvature. And so this is the base. And then we'll puncture holes in to allow air to be ventilation to be carried and captured. That will eventually be turned into water.
Brittany: We ultimately want to get to, make sure we have a marbleized, textured aesthetic on the surface. Can't just give you a cardboard box and be like, “Oh, it makes water!” We want people to feel proud of how they are sourcing and capturing and refining water. Everyone deserves water.
TEXT: The first Hydronomy units will be installed in New York State Parks at the end of 2022.