Innovation In The Water Sector

 I was at Imagine H2O’s “Water Innovation Week” conference this week - virtually, of course! Imagine H2O is a wonderful resource and accelerator for startups in the water space, and their program this week was an excellent representation of water’s central role, not just in our daily lives, but also in the clean technology sector in general. 


In most of the developed world, water isn’t really at the forefront of most people’s minds. Turn on the tap, you get clean, free flowing water - and unless you’re in the water sector, you’re probably not thinking about things like aging water infrastructure, budgets and how to fund water infrastructure, how to ensure that water is used efficiently, that wastewater is effectively treated and that tradeoffs between the water allocated to different sectors are discussed and managed equitably. In fact, unless there’s a storm or a flood or a leak in the water pipes in your house - water is not your primary concern.


And that is how it should be. The water sector often has the reputation of being a staid, slow-growth, highly regulated sector - but that’s because access to a clean, reliable water supply is so essential to life. The water sector needs to be able to deliver clean water reliably, at a reasonable cost, and with minimal interruptions to people’s lives - and that’s what it has been doing pretty effectively in most of the developed world. So, managers and decision makers in large water utilities and organizations are understandably leery of startups that promise a lot, come into the sector determined to change it, and comments like “move fast and break things”. Breaking a water pipe or a water treatment system is not usually considered a useful outcome! 


And yet, there is also a strong desire to innovate and make the systems that deliver and clean water more reliable, effective and cost-efficient. This is something that has come to the fore with the pandemic. With the sudden move to remote working and a decreased workforce, large utilities and organizations have been forced to move to newer ways of working. There’s definitely been increased interest in remote monitoring, predictive maintenance, smart sensors and ways by which water systems and water plants can become more efficient. And, as the pandemic has continued, there’s also been interest in moving to more efficient recording systems - whether it’s developing an app for automated chain of custody forms, or storing inspection reports electronically in the cloud or developing a collaborative tool where managers, workers and engineers can all track the status of the system and the maintenance work being done.


The startups that can navigate the tension between the twin goals of delivering water reliably, efficiently and cheaply, and creating novel methods, systems and tools that improve the system (without breaking it!) are the ones that have succeeded in the space so far. They’ve been able to build partnerships with larger water companies, showcase the technology through pilots, gain funding through these partnerships and finally build solutions that can actually scale. It’s a very different model from typical, consumer focused internet startups that you hear so much about - and it’s extremely effective in its own way.


There were several really amazing startups at the conference this week and many of them were using combinations of smart sensors or IoT with machine learning and data science to solve some really tough problems in the water space. Examples of these startups are StormSensor  (which uses sensors and AI to better manage stormwater in cities), Varuna (which monitors the distribution network), Ziptility (which has an app to help operators manage their workflow and budget) and SewerAI (which monitors the status of sewer pipes remotely).

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