By Peter Chawaga
Water and wastewater municipalities are on a constant search for new tools. At the mercy of developers, they hope that the latest, most efficient, most cutting-edge technologies and methods will arrive to help them improve practices and cut down on costs.
But what if they didn’t have to merely hope for disruptive companies to come out with something to make their work easier? What if they took on that search alone and forged their own path forward?
In an effort to merge the roles of innovator and end user, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) launched an “open innovation” program that encourages employees to identify emerging technologies and upcoming regulatory changes, undertake scientific research, and ultimately make recommendations for new technologies or practices to be implemented.
According to an “Intellectual Property Program Assessment” issued by the utility in 2015, a formal version of an open innovations program was established in early 2014. The science and technology research arm of DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, the world’s largest, had been officially encouraged to develop methods and technologies that address safety risks and improve processes, hopefully resulting in intellectual property patents that have commercial value.
The process of taking a concept to recommendation typically takes up to five years and it may be another five years until the recommendation is implemented, according to the assessment.
DC Water is responsible for providing drinking water and sewage treatment to 600,000 residents (an estimated 700,000 during working hours) plus wholesale wastewater treatment services for another 1.6 million people in Maryland and Virginia. Its innovative approach to communications and advocacy has made it a visible leader among the nation’s water and wastewater utilities. By making the open innovation program accessible to collaborators and refusing to safeguard the intellectual property they create, the initiative is an extension of that leadership.
“DC Water operates with a mindset that ideas and opportunities are abundant, and we are open to sharing them with peer utilities, manufacturers, consultants, environmental groups, and regulators,” said Biju George, the chief of staff. “With respect to innovation, we are fortunate to partner with a select group of professionals who share our values and commitment to the water sector.”
Though it may be pursued with a collaborative spirit, it can be to DC Water’s financial benefit to share access to the program.
“We are always looking for utility partners in every level for technology development, piloting, demonstration, and purchase,” said George. “Essentially by jointly evaluating and implementing technologies we share costs, and with the added scrutiny we mitigate risks and make a technology ready for implementation more quickly. In the United States, the DC Water royalties are dedicated to furtherance of new technology development and hopefully building a virtuous circle.”
While the authority declined to comment on how much revenue these developments have brought in, George did confirm that it has “about a dozen” patents in various states of approval and that it has deployed nearly $1 billion of wastewater infrastructure as a result of the program. The program has the added benefit of increasing partnerships with outside agencies and helping to attract and retain talent that might otherwise choose to work in the private sector.
George cites nitrogen and phosphorus removal and anaerobic digestion as two areas where the open innovation program has improved technologies or methodologies which have been adapted by other utilities. It is his belief that with the right attitude, any utility can create a similar program of its own.
“Start small,” he said. “Hire one or two individuals that have a strong background in development or implementation of new technologies. Develop good teaming partners and any needed contractual arrangement. Within your team, it is really about trust and openness.”