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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

University of Idaho students’ green shower prototype hopes to solve global water waste and energy issues

University of Idaho student Edward Hall, center, demonstrates the Forever Shower with teammates Alex Boatman, left, and Maria Horta Vorse as they practice for the Northwest Entrepreneur Competition on Tuesday, April, 17, 2018, at Whitworth University. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

One day shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Maria Horta Vorse stepped out of the shower and started to feel uneasy.

Her blood pressure rose, she blacked out and she nearly died, she said, because the heat dehydrated her.

“It was terrifying,” she said, and after that she “had to settle for short, kind-of-cold showers.”

But it sparked an idea. Together with her husband Chad Vorse, the two created a bathing system that allowed her to shower safely while preserving energy and recycling waste water. And they realized it could solve bigger, global issues with unclean water.

So they invented just that: the Forever Shower. And on Tuesday, their team of four – all University of Idaho students – presented a prototype to a group of judges in the Northwest Entrepreneur Competition at Whitworth University. The Forever Shower group competed against seven other teams in a technology category – a branch of other categories of competitions. First-place winners receive $10,000.

The 18th annual competition is funded by grants, mostly from the Herbert B. Jones Foundation in Seattle. Part of the idea is to spur small business growth in Spokane and prevent college graduates from leaving Spokane for a career. Some winners of the Northwest Entrepreneur Competition in the past include e-commerce company Etailz, which now employs about 250 people in Spokane, and Photoboxx, a company that supplies printers specifically for printing keepsake photos marked with hashtags and posted on Twitter or Instagram.

When the results of Tuesday’s competition came in around 4 p.m., Forever Shower was not awarded any prizes. Maria and her team were surprised, they said, but will continue improving their product.

“The most important thing for us is focusing on more competitions,” she said. “There are people who believe in us.”

Maria and the Forever Shower team are still aiming to join the ranks of cutting-edge companies based in Spokane.

The team’s vision for its product includes helping hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, partnering with RV manufacturers for installation in in vehicles and replacing household showers to save energy and water.

The Forever Shower prototype is housed in a black 34-by-34-inch suitcase with wheels. It contains two water filters, a pump that runs off a 12-volt battery and other secret components that Vorse doesn’t want to reveal yet – but the team is working on installing sensors for connecting to a smartphone app that can control the temperature of the recycled water.

A luggage tag dangled on the prototype’s housing from the team’s trip to Massachusetts two weeks ago for another entrepreneurial competition. They were awarded second place by judges, earning them $7,500. The team also placed second in a competition in April and won a competition in March.

The product’s idea gained momentum when Chad, 52, and Maria, 48, took an entrepreneur class at the University of Idaho and built a prototype for the Forever Shower.

“We pitched the idea in class and everybody liked it,” she said.

They eventually picked up their other two teammates, Alex Boatman, 22, and Edward Hall, 22, and both players on the University of Idaho football team, to help with engineering and sales.

The two filters for the shower filter water to 0.2 microns and remove 99.9 percent of bacteria and some viruses, which is clean enough to drink.

The team is planning to launch two versions of the shower, one for portable use and the other for residential homes and RVs. Chad Vorse said that a newer version would be complete in the summer, and it will be made out of bamboo.

“We would really like this invention to bless a lot of people in the world that don’t have a lot of funds and don’t have a lot of water,” Chad Vorse said.

Keeping the talent

The director of Tuesday’s Northwest Entrepreneur Competition, Sinead Voorhess, said programs like the one held at Whitworth “exponentially helps talent loss” because the companies have an easier time starting in Spokane. The competition also matches the participants with resources for starting their business, along with the prize money.

“Once someone invests in (the entrepreneurs), a switch goes off in their heads, and they think, ‘I could actually do this for a career,’ ” Voorhees said.

Steve Trabun, one of the 50 judges, said the competition is growing every year. “If you can harness these ideas and wrap around them the support they need, there will be huge opportunities to create businesses,” he said.

Trabun, who works for competition sponsor Avista, has two adult children living in Seattle, and he wishes they would have stayed in Spokane, if only for more businesses like these startups to draw younger adults.

“We want to keep kids in Spokane,” said Trabun, a sixth-year participant in helping run the competition.