They say a man can’t live on beer alone. Technically, one could survive for a few weeks before succumbing from dehydration through the diuretic effect. Add water to your diet and you can definitely make it through Lent, as the monks of old would do, before scurvy killed you. Our point is that water is an important resource—for stuff like making beer, staying alive—that many experts believe will become a scarce resource as the climate changes. Droughts, overpopulation, pollution—all contribute to its scarcity. That’s why H20 has been called variously the “new gold” or “new oil” of the 21st century.
Here’s the part where we throw a few scary stats at you, all pulled from the World Health Organization:
- Globally, at least 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source contaminated with feces.
- At least 10% of the world’s population is thought to consume food irrigated by wastewater.
- By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.
All of the billions of dollars we pour into autonomous vehicles, robots and artificial intelligence won’t amount to much if the world turns into a parched dustbowl. The good news is that we’ve come across quite a few water tech startups that are finding ways to plug leaks, clean water and even monitor the health of underground aquifers. The bad news is that many of these companies don’t draw the big venture capital dollars that prop up Silicon Valley startups and the like. Instead, they rely on grants, bootstrapping, crowdsourcing and cupcake sales to bring their water technology to market. Startup accelerator ImagineH2O is one of the few firms out there directly supporting water tech startups. Still, in 2014, only $281 million was invested globally in 66 water technology startups, according to CleanTech Group i3.
Like many of these roundups, our water tech startups list isn’t meant to be comprehensive: so unless you’re Jesus turning wine into water, please don’t whine to us that we forgot XYZ company unless they’re doing something of biblical proportions.
Detecting Water on Other Planets
Not surprisingly—and to continue on our blasphemous pilgrimage—quite a few water tech startups are based in Israel, like Utilis, which uses satellite imagery to detect underground leaks in water supply infrastructure. Not many details are available about the company’s funding or investors, aside from a $25,000 check from ImagineH20 for having the coolest tech in its portfolio this year. In the U.S. alone, about 2.1 trillion gallons of treated water are lost due to leaky, old pipes, NRP reports. The water tech from Utilis is based on research developed for detecting water on other planets. See the short video below for how they do it:
In one case, Utilis found 30 leaks in the city of Ferrara, Italy, including all of the major leaks (classified as losing 30 liters or more per minute). The trial run earned the water tech startup a three-year service contract to monitor the city’s 27,000 kilometers of water networks from outer space.
Reverse Osmosis Systems
Another water tech startup out of Israel, Tel Aviv-based Desalitech has raised $22.25 million funding to develop reverse osmosis systems. Desalination—turning seawater into fresh water—is one of those topics we’ve been writing about here for quite some time. We even turned you on to how few opportunities there really are at the moment to invest in desalination companies. Desalitech is a water tech startup that has developed a closed-circuit reverse osmosis (RO) water filtration system that has earned its customers like Coca Cola and Archer Daniels Midland. The video below gives you a brief but lingo-laden explanation that maybe a plumber with a PhD could understand:
The salient points are that traditional RO systems might capture about 75 percent of the water running through the system. Desalitech claims nearly all of the precious H20 that flows through its ReFlex closed loop is recaptured. How good is it? Folks in Boston could taste the difference following a beer brewing competition using water from the polluted Charles River that went through Desalitech’s RO system.
Biosensors that Detect Microorganisms
Calgary-based FREDsense Technologies is definitely one of those water tech startups working off a shoestring. The only hint about funding is a $100,000 convertible note, a type of loan that is paid back with equity in the company. The water tech startup has also raised money through crowdfunding ($15,000) and by entering (and winning) about eight tech competitions to earn $75,000. We think we caught them on Family Feud as well. FREDsense is developing biosensors that use microorganisms to detect contaminants.
The company says its Field-Ready Electrochemical Detector (FRED) is fast and sensitive, returning results within one hour at the site, with the ability to detect at parts per billion. The first test in its nascent portfolio is for arsenic, with tests for chromium, phosphate and others on the way. FREDsense claims its water tech will replace expensive, complex contamination systems currently in place.
Artificial Intelligence is the New Water
Of course, no list of emerging tech in any field would be complete without some application of artificial intelligence. In this case, Pluto AI out of Palo Alto, California, scratches that itch. The water tech startup picked up $2.1 million in Seed scratch in March of this year to develop machine learning for “asset” management at water planets, utilities and beverage manufacturers. Pluto’s platform takes all of the unstructured data created by sensors and other instruments to identify problems before they occur. That helps prevent waste and reduce costs, according to the company. Its business model is a software-as-a-service (SaaS), with a price structure that scales based on the size of the data pool. That means smaller operations pay less than the bigger ones with more data points to connect. TechCrunch reports that Pluto can also use historical data to recommend steps to improve plant infrastructure and that the startup plans to “grow its enterprise sales team to scale its new platform in the marketplace”.
An Israeli startup (of course) called TaKaDu competes in the same space, applying machine learning and big data to help utilities manage problems. The company, which has picked up more than $20 million in investments so far, claims its SaaS solution reduces water waste by 30 percent and reduces repair time for pipelines by 60 percent. With backing from 3M and ABB, TaKaDu now manages more than 40,000 miles of water pipeline in leading utilities worldwide, including Australia, South America, the Far East and Europe according to an article a few years ago by Bloomberg which profiled TaKaDu. In that same article, it was stated that “on average, utilities worldwide lose more than 30 percent of the water they distribute in their networks”. With the TaKaDu solution this number can get down to 10%.
Apana out of Bellingham, Washington, brings the Internet of Things to water conservation. The water tech startup raised a $3.5 million Series A in January. Its customers aren’t water utilities but companies with big facilities where leaks—or infrastructure failures—potentially mean big business losses. Apana’s platform relies on grabbing data from sensors and water meters to provide a minute-by-minute account of how much water a building is using. The system alerts the customer when it detects anomalies in water usage. Giant box retailer Costco has deployed the system in more than 50 buildings and has seen a 22 percent average reduction in water use, according to a story in Fortune. Here’s a tidy little infomercial about how the system works:
Apana landed a couple of new customers after the Series A this year: Mister Car Wash and Fetzer Vineyards.
Monitoring Groundwater Levels
One of our writers played at being a mountain man for a few years in the Rockies, where many people rely on wells tapped into underground aquifers to supply water. A report says one third of the world’s major aquifers, which sustain about two billion people, are being rapidly repeated. Enter Wellntel, a Milwaukee startup that has taken in $1.24 million to develop inexpensive technology to monitor groundwater. The startup’s battery-powered Wellntel systems retail for less than $1,000. The instruments use sonar to track water levels and then wirelessly transmit the data to the cloud.
The company is also doing its bit for science, organizing networks to evaluate the health of groundwater systems in different regions.
Human nature is to be reactive rather than proactive. We saw it with technologies like solar, where investments didn’t reach a tipping point until the world started worrying about little things like, well, the end of the world. Now solar is poised to overtake coal as the cheapest power on the planet.
Similarly, we wouldn’t expect VCs to be thirsty to back water tech startups until some crisis or other pushes the industry to the forefront. Based on the mounting data, that moment may not be too long in the future. In the meantime, if you’re looking to get some exposure in water tech and the industry in general, you can always dive into an exchange traded fund that specializes in water-related stocks.
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