Startups, Funding and Disruption In The Wastewater Sector

 Today, we’ll conclude our series on data science in the wastewater sector with a look at the market size and some of the startups that are disrupting the sector.


The global market for wastewater treatment was $48 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $65 billion by 2023, an annualized growth rate of about 6%. This includes both municipal wastewater and wastewater from industrial plants such as oil and gas, paper, chemical manufacturing, food and mining. The market consists of engineering design and construction, operations, maintenance and process control of wastewater infrastructure, including sewer pipes and treatment plants.  While wastewater treatment is necessary in all countries, the size of the market by country is typically dependent on the regulations and environmental requirements. Europe and North America have the largest municipal wastewater treatment markets, but demand is rapidly growing in China, India and other developing countries. Some of the largest companies in this sector are Veolia (France), SUEZ (France), Xylem (US), Ecolab (India), Evoqua Water Technologies (US), Thermax (India), W.O.G. Group (US), Golder Associates (Canada),  Envirosystems Inc. (Canada), and SWA Water Holdings (Australia).


So, how is data science disrupting the wastewater sector?


Now, wastewater is a relatively conservative sector, with innovations being adopted relatively slowly, compared to the tech sector for example. Some of this is because of the nature of the sector - having a wastewater treatment system go down would cause enormous disruptions in people’s lives. As a result, operators and companies tend to be cautious about deploying innovative systems and there’s usually a process by which innovations are tested - lab scale tests, pilot trials on a small system and larger scale trials. 


However, there’s huge potential for AI/machine learning and data science in general to disrupt this sector, but for it to be successful, startups usually need to work in partnership with existing municipal utilities or companies. While venture capitalists (VCs) have not yet deployed the level of funding they have in the agriculture and energy sectors yet, there’s significant opportunity for early mover startups to become big players in this sector.


Let’s take a look at some of the startups disrupting this sector.


Earlier this month, we discussed the emerging discipline of wastewater epidemiology and it’s uses in monitoring outbreaks like the one we’re currently facing with Covid-19. One of the startups that has come out of this pandemic is Biobot - a company that is partnering with cities around the world in using wastewater to track and model the spread of SARS-COV2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The company was started by two researchers from MIT, and has raised funding of ~$6 million to date.


Another area where startups are having an impact is in using AI/machine learning and modeling to track the performance and status of sewer pipe infrastructure. Monitoring the status of underground sewer pipes is a tricky, time-consuming affair and in some parts of the world, an extremely risky, manual operation. Being able to monitor and map these systems remotely is something that companies and utilities are extremely interested in - they are willing partners and strategic investors in many cases. 


Startups in this area usually use robots or autonomous vehicles in combination with computer vision, machine learning and wastewater modeling to identify issues and track the performance of the sewer pipe infrastructure. Some of the companies working in this area are Sewer AI in San Francisco, Sewer Robotics, and RedZone Robotics. Sewer Robotics uses their robots to perform repairs in addition to monitoring the state of the pipes. In India, an early stage startup GenRobotics has been working with a number of states on using their robots to replace manual labor in the sewer system. 


Much like the early days in agriculture and energy, we’re now seeing innovations in data science, ML and robotics start disrupting the water and wastewater sectors. And we’ll definitely see more in the coming years!

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