From The Editor | April 2, 2016

Empowering Water Entrepreneurship: Elevating Economical, Ecological Water Projects

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

Our series on “Pow! emPowering Opportunities in Water” examines the national search for burgeoning, sustainable water technologies. In part one of this three-part series, we take a look behind the scenes of the competition and how Nutrient Recovery and Upcycling LLC is emblematic of the winning companies.

Driven by a desire to highlight its leadership in water innovation to the public, environmental services conglomerate Veolia sought to establish a program that would elevate a truly useful, environmentally conscious, water-related concept into a polished and lucrative product.

By banding with two other forces, technology and entrepreneurial hub The Water Council and public-private investor the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), Veolia created “Pow! emPowering Opportunities in Water.” The national competition launched last September and remained open to entries for two months. In February, the three winning technologies were announced.

They are Nano Gas Technologies, Inc., which has devised a highly efficient method for recycling and removing oil from produced water; Nutrient Recovery and Upcycling LLC (NRU), a phosphorus removal company; and WAVVE Stream Inc., offering a moldable hydrogel capable of removing specified contaminants.

Veolia will give each winner a $25,000 cash prize, a year of free office space in its Global Water Center in Milwaukee, as well as mentorship and access to its vast, overseas business network. The Water Council and WEDC will combine to give them each an additional $15,000 cash prize. The Water Council will also donate a $10,000 tuition to its business accelerator of water technology experts and mentors, plus provide business model and operations training. Finally, the winning companies will have access to faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School for Freshwater Sciences, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and Marquette University.

“By providing access to markets, pilot sites, research and innovation, technical partners, and professionals who can bolster the winners’ ideas and experiences, Pow! is a new way that Veolia and partner organizations can contribute to global improvements in how we manage water,” Brennon Garthwait, the open innovation manager at Veolia, told Water Online.

This year’s competition, the inaugural, asked entrants to address one of four challenges: smart-data technologies, resilience and sustainable water management, watershed management, and disruptive water innovation. These were chosen because the sponsors believe they are the greatest challenges faced by the water industry today, but not because they had a particular solution in mind.

“The topics were kept broad intentionally as an attempt to leave no stone unturned and provide ample opportunity for any solution that could improve our environmental stewardship,” Garthwait said.

Twenty-nine companies proposed potential solutions and Veolia is working with some of the runner-up companies to find ways that they might still collaborate.

“We collectively weren’t sure what to expect, but we were really very pleased by the direction and progress of the winners,” said Elizabeth Thelen, director of talent and entrepreneurship for The Water Council. “There were some strong applications so, between Veolia and The Water Council, making a final decision was actually a difficult task. But that’s a great problem to have.”

NRU is demonstrative of the main two qualities that make a Pow! winner. As a phosphorus recovery process, its technology precipitates brushite from wastewater, which can be sold as a fertilizer. While generating revenue, the nutrient removal also efficiently prevents surface water from accumulating excessive cyanotoxins, fulfilling an environmental need.

“NRU’s approach can turn an operational nuisance and regulated environmental liability into a process that protects the environment and generates savings for cities and industries,” Garthwait said. “The company’s process also decreases reliance on foreign ore and increases domestic food security due to the necessity of phosphate materials in the agricultural industry.”

With its winnings, NRU will be able to expand on its promising pilot tests and deliver its product to a wastewater treatment market that is increasingly eager to remove nutrients while saving on costs. At least, that’s the outcome that the companies behind Pow! are hoping for.