PurLyte: Disinfection and Hydration For All

Innovation in health care is essential to making progress in medical science, patient care, and health outcomes.
Physician-led innovation is responsible for major breakthroughs in disease prevention, detection, and treatment and medical technology.

John B. Parker, MD/MPH (AU/UGA Medical Partnership Class of 2021) is one such innovator working to prevent people from dying of diseases like cholera and dysentery.

While earning his dual MD/MPH degree at the Medical Partnership and University of Georgia, Dr. Parker began thinking of ways to prevent of the spread of disease during disaster and emergency situations. Dr. Parker began experimenting in his kitchen to invent a product that could help solve this problem.

The result was a revolutionary breakthrough that combines water disinfection and hydration in one tablet.

I talked with Dr. Parker about his journey as an inventor and physician:

What inspired you to create PurLyte?
I guess I should start by saying that at some point in medical school, I became interested in coming up with simple solutions to complex problems. I began looking for big problems that could easily be fixed. Once I started seeing things through that lens, I feel like I started to see little opportunities everywhere.

The first time I saw an opportunity worth pursuing was when I was reading a paper about the cholera outbreak that occurred in Haiti in 2010-2011. During this outbreak, over 10,000 people died as a result of a disease
that’s both preventable and treatable, something that is very apparent when you consider how few people in the US have any experience at all with cholera (or even know that it still kills people).

I read that household bleach was being used to disinfect water in an attempt to decrease transmission of cholera, but problems existed in getting people to actually use it (given the poor taste), getting people to use it correctly (dosing it correctly, giving it enough time to work, etc.), and making sure people had access to it.
I also read that World Health Organization Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) – something I was already familiar with thanks to Dr. Cohen’s great lectures at the Medical Partnership, if given early enough, is often completely effective at treating the dehydration caused by cholera. The solution is very inexpensive since it’s just sugar and salt in a very specific ratio, and was vastly underutilized during this outbreak. Problems also existed with ORS that were similar to the problems seen with bleach; getting people to use it
correctly (dosing), getting people to actually use it, and making sure people had clean water to make it with.

In the margins of the paper I was reading, I actually drew out a way to combine a chlorine disinfectant and ORS in a dissolvable tablet that would allow them to be paired together into one product.

I started looking into chlorine disinfection and WHO ORS more and more and searched for six months or so looking for a product that combines these two things and I just couldn’t find it anywhere. I was finding that these things are used together very often, they complement each other very well, and they could easily be combined in a way that fixes problems people encounter when they’re used separately.

After lots of researching I was finally just like, “I believe this would help prevent deaths if it existed. It definitely doesn’t exist yet, but I’m pretty sure I can make this happen.” Soon after that I formed PurLyte LLC, asked two friends of mine to join, and just kind of got to work.

How did your time at the Medical Partnership assist you in creating this innovative product?
Being at the Medical Partnership was crucial in many ways, and I don’t think I would’ve started PurLyte if I hadn’t been there. I had lectures from incredible teachers like Dr. Howard Cohen and Dr. Amy Baldwin. I did an internship with Dr. Jonathan Murrow and learned a lot from him on concepts related to business in medicine, ethical considerations for physicians engaging in business in medicine, and how to lead. I had access
to all that Athens and UGA have to offer, and the list goes on and on.

Arguably one of the most important things I gained from being in Athens was a friendship with my first business partner and co-founder of PurLyte, Lee Brackman. I couldn’t have started PurLyte without his help.

What type of support did you receive from UGA?
I was pursuing a Master of Public Health with a concentration in disaster management at the time, so I was exposed to leaders working in and around the Institute for Disaster Management, including Dr. James O’Neal, former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, Dr. Curt Harris, and many other individuals with tons of experience in disaster management. PurLyte won UGA’s QuickPitch competition about a month after we started, providing us with $1,000 to get started and our first real validation as a company. We went through UGA’s NSF-Funded I-Corps program in the spring of 2020 as well, allowing us a budget of several
thousand dollars and teaching us many of the core tenets of being entrepreneurs and running a startup company.

What are your future goals for your company?
The whole reason we started this company was to set up a sustainable way to develop and fund donations of these tablets to those who could benefit from them, but don’t have the means to purchase them. As we’ve grown, we’ve realized that hikers, campers, international travelers, and military personnel are also very interested in our product. Our initial market will be the recreational outdoor and military markets where we will sell our disinfecting sports drink tablets, PurLyte Quest Tablets, rather than our hopefully more clinically useful disinfecting ORS tablets, PurLyte Clean Hydration Tablets, which require more rigorous testing before we can prove that they will be beneficial when treating sick patients. We’ve added on two more members to our PurLyte team, James Taylor and Stephen Simmons, and with their help, we’ve secured a contract manufacturer, and are about to begin working on an STTR Grant Application with a branch of the US military to fund further development of our tablets and explore additional applications of our technology. Once we’re up and running, we plan to begin donating our tablets to NGOs and humanitarian aid agencies who could use them to prevent diarrheal disease outbreaks.

What is one of the biggest lessons about innovation you have learned through this process?
Allow yourself to be creative and imaginative when dreaming up potential solutions to problems. When you find something that could work, force yourself to learn everything you can about the topic, and talk to people who are experts. Passionate people often enjoy a good ol’ cold call from someone who genuinely wants to pick their brain and learn. Test the idea as hard as you can up front so you can fail early if you’re going to fail at all.

Oh, one more thing, don’t let yourself be dazzled by someone who has an impressive background or name. A name means virtually nothing at all if the person doesn’t work hard and share the workload (speaking from experience). Do some research on someone’s background and previous business partners before you sign a contract with them and give up equity or control. I cannot stress this enough.

How are you balancing running your company with being a new resident?
I kind of knew that residency was coming, so I brought on talented and hard-working co-founders who help carry the load. Emergency medicine is also a wonderful specialty in that you will almost always have at least 1-2 days a week to do whatever you want, even as an intern. I can’t lie, it is a lot of work. It definitely helps that I enjoy working on both.


This article can also be found in our latest issue of the Partnership Pulse.

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