Sustainability Innovations in the Wastewater Industry

In 2010, I wrote about Imagine H2O (an incubator hosting prize competitions for water innovations) as they launched their second annual prize competition focused on the water-energy nexus. Recently, I attended Imagine H2O’s 3rd Annual Water Entrepreneurs Showcase at which the organization announced the winners of their 2011 prize competition for innovations in the wastewater industry.

This year’s competition attracted 50 startups, from which nine finalists were selected.  The competition was split into two categories, a pre-revenue track and an early revenue track.  Bilexys won the Pre-Revenue Track for its technology that converts wastewater into chemicals which can then be reused in the treatment process.  New Sky Energy won the Early Revenue Track for its technology that combines CO2 and industrial wastewater to extract usable chemicals from the wastewater stream. Additionally, Nexus eWater and Tusaar, Inc. were named runners up in the Pre-Revenue Track— Nexus eWater for its technology that converts residential gray water into near-potable water and recycles its energy for hot water heating, and Tusaar for development of a low-cost technology to remove heavy-metal contaminants from wastewater effluent.

Imagine H2O’s event heralds a turning point in the wastewater industry.  In the past, wastewater treatment was a service and technology field that was often an afterthought.  I found it especially refreshing that three of the four winners and runners up viewed wastewater treatment as an opportunity, not a necessary burden.  By viewing wastewater effluent as a resource (from which chemicals can be manufactured, heat can be recovered, and useable water be produced), the winning teams are both creating economic value and increasing sustainability in the water sector.  These innovations can save embedded energy by reducing energy use associated with water supply and chemical production.  Meanwhile, the remaining finalists in the competition focused on reducing the cost and energy requirements of treating wastewater and producing recycled water, both noble causes.

During the acceptance speeches, one winning team explained they are driven by the idea that “water is one of the few un-substitutable resources on this planet”.  As water-stressed regions (including California) continue to see decreases in supply and increases in costs, it will become apparent that wastewater effluent is no longer a waste but instead a resource and path to sustainability.

Imagine H2O places winners in an accelerator program which provides accounting and financial services; introductions to beta customers, financiers, and market partners; assistance in securing lab and/or office space; and publicity.  If Imagine H2O’s efforts are successful, we may never look at a wastewater treatment plant the same again.