Innovation changes perceived risk of water investment

BlueTech Forum brings water sector’s enterprises, investors, and research centres, and US magazine ranked list Fortune 500’s end-users and water utilities. As the forum approaches, a snapshot survey of the views of industry leaders from participating global organisations reveals major industry trends.

The water sector’s industry leaders

What are challenges driving change in the water sector?

“Water is the primary medium through which we see the effects of climate change via less predictable water availability, increased flooding threatening water points and sanitation facilities, and exacerbated water scarcity,” said Snehal Desai, executive vice-president and growth and sustainability officer at Evoqua Water Technologies.

He added: “There is a lack of resilient infrastructure. What is in place was not built for the kind of water stresses being witnessed now and in the future. Substantial amounts of infrastructure will require upgrades or replacement in the coming years.”     

Mark England, vice-president of innovation, sensing and engineering excellence at Xylem said, “In many countries, the infrastructure is old and in need of repair or modernisation, including both water treatment plants and the networks of pipes used to transport potable and wastewater.”

Glenn Vicevic, Veolia CTO said that decarbonising the industry is a priority, as “cognisant of the challenges in decarbonising economy, and as it turns out, the water and wastewater space is a contributor to greenhouse gas generation, which occurs through on-going operations as well as the technological selections. In addition, wastewater treatment facilities produce nitrous oxide, one of the most problematic greenhouse gases.” 

How has the mindset shifted for the water sector in the last five years?

Michael Lesniak, vice-president of global partnerships and net zero water at Aquatech said: “The move towards more sustainable water management practices is seeing a need to conserve water resources and reduce the environmental impact of industrial water use, driven by stricter regulations, water scarcity, and increased awareness of water-related issues.”

England added that there is another mindset change as “wastewater is a rich resource and rethinking the attitude to the way that the industry plans and values the processing of wastewater is key to meeting the sectors net zero goals in the future.”

What opportunities should the water sector be embracing now to tackle future challenges?

Circular economy is a priority for Kimberly Kupiecki, senior director at Ginkgo Bioworks, which uses genetic engineering to produce bacteria for industrial applications. She said: “[The] potential to apply synthetic biology to augment existing solutions, such as turning wastewater into valuable products, dewatering sludge more effectively, and leveraging biosensors to quickly identify contaminants.

“Organic waste is another untapped resource. With the right biological and process application, it can be economically upcycled into saleable materials, as well as generate bioenergy. Recovery of rare earth minerals from industrial wastewater, including mining and oil and gas operations, is another example where Ginkgo Bioworks implement circular economy practices.”

Vicevik said advanced membrane technologies allow customers “to extract more value from their existing infrastructure at a low cost and demonstrably reduced electricity.”

While England saw the opportunity in using digital technologies, he said that digital technologies can provide information about performance optimisation of water assets and use that data to reduce waste and process emissions. “That requires new types of sensors and machine learning (ML) algorithms to manage process parameters for networks.”

What are the barriers to water sector investment and what can be done to reduce the lead time from initial concept to market ready technologies?

Common and persistent market barriers in water technology adoption are echoed by all industry leaders. These include investor appetite, variables on the return on investment, the scale of funding needed for validation testing, procurement and bidding processes being unfit for purpose, and the complexities of navigating the water market.

England said, “Water sector investment has typically lagged behind investment in other infrastructure areas. That is partly because water is not valued highly enough, and partly because the regulatory landscape has been changing faster than the typical investment return cycle, which affects investor confidence.  

“Funding to test out solutions can also be a large deterrent — many technologies can only be validated at scale, and that means that pilot projects can be relatively expensive and are often perceived as too high risk.”

BlueTech Research revealed that it can take 12-16 years for water innovations to go from initial concept to market-ready solution. One of the founding goals of BlueTech Forum, which participating organisations align to, is to reduce this lead time to 6-10 years to increase the success rate of water innovations in the global market. 

To change the perceived risk of investing in the water sector, England put emphasis on collaborations and partnerships, that could “put forward new business models and financing methods.” 

Lesniak recommended “outsourcing models such as operations and maintenance and using flexible financing options such as rentals, leases, or build-own-operate contracts” to help financial challenges.

To strengthen sector commitment, Xylem, Veolia, Evoqua, and BlueTech Research are joining forces with 13 other organisations to support the UN Water Action Agenda by pledging to invest US$11bn in water innovation over the next five years.

The funds will be directed toward water-related research and development; start-up companies commercialising approaches to water management; and the deployment of new water technologies. The organisations will also engage with development agencies and governments to facilitate more cross-sector action to solve water challenges and barriers to investment.

With BlueTech Forum 2023’s theme of ‘innovation for impact’, the benefit of taking part “brings together a diverse group of individuals, which promotes radical collaboration and innovation”, according to Lesniak from Aquatech. “Through interactive roundtables, attendees are encouraged to share knowledge and experiences, challenge assumptions, and explore new ideas. This fosters creativity and generates insights into pressing water-related issues.”

“Innovation is typically a slow development curve in the water industry but participating in BlueTech Forum help us to accelerate in this area,” said Vicevic at Veolia.

Densai from Evoqua added, “The forum focuses on bringing innovation to market through collaboration with forward-thinking stakeholders in the water ecosystem. The sessions allow cross-sector dialogue where everyone aligns with tangible actions to take steps toward tackling challenges in the sector.”

The intention of this year’s forum, according to the organisers, is to go beyond the remit of most water industry events by aiming to prove to the investors, end-users, and corporations that attend that there are many pathways to reaching collective goals and visions.

“By harnessing new innovations, and with active engagement of the sector and investors, organisations are moving from being water-takers to water-leavers,” said Paul O’Callaghan, CEO of BlueTech Research.