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Riding a wave of innovation: These 10 start-ups are securing the world's freshwater

UpLink and HCL Group are building an innovation ecosystem to help water-focused entrepreneurs, or 'aquapreneurs', scale their impact.

As innovative technologies continue to advance, a water secure future for all is possible. Image: Unsplash / Jon Flobrant

Anna Huber
Impact Lead, Water & Health, UpLink, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Despite a growing number of innovative water solutions, freshwater resources are deteriorating around the world.
  • Creative policies, financing models, and public support are required to help these water innovations scale.
  • The 10 selected Top Innovators from the UpLink Global Freshwater Challenge will share CHF1.75 million and gain connections to leading experts and investors to accelerate their solutions.

We are in an encouraging era of water innovation – machines pull water out of air, AI sensors detect the exact location of leakages in pipes, desalination plants powered by renewable energy help unlock new sources of drinking water, and wastewater reuse can take water from the tap to the toilet. As innovative technologies continue to advance, a water secure future for all is possible.

Yet, the water sector is notoriously risk-averse, slow in the adoption and dissemination of new technologies, and uses overly technical language in its public advocacy for why we must address the mismanagement and pollution of our freshwater resources around the globe – making the case for sustainable water innovation hard to ignore.

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Here are three areas where fresh thinking is most needed to propel water innovation:

1. Enabling policies

As Paul O’Callaghan, Founder & CEO BlueTech Research, writes, the adoption of new water policies is slow, and new water technology can take up to 14 years to be disseminated. Governments still face challenges in managing their water resources effectively, hindering water policy reform.

Industrial water use accounts for 20% of global water withdrawals, but we can shrink this percentage through wastewater treatment companies like Indra Water or Epic Cleantec. We could subsidize kilolitres saved in the same way we subsidize kWh produced. However, current government policies and regulations block the scale of this emerging tech. If we were to support wastewater treatment in a similar manner to solar panels, these technologies could become competitive in the same way that solar has become. Water needs to feature more prominently on the political agenda to usher in more creative and flexible regulations that enable the proliferation of water technologies, and new business and funding models to power them.

2. New financing models

The cry for water innovation has been answered by a growing number of founders, and new funders are emerging in the space as a result. While this is encouraging, financial investment in the water sector still lags far behind other sectors, such as energy. Clean energy investment was expected to top $1.4 trillion in 2022. Climate tech venture capital deployed $70.1 billion, up 89% in 2021. Venture investment in water innovation is around $100-$200 million per year. While large sums are being invested in research and development for water, there is more to be done to turn that knowledge into impact and value.

Much of the financing that is emerging is going into seed or pilot-phase projects. In the coming years we will need more investors and indeed public sources of funding to take on the risk of funding water technologies in their later stages.

3. Public buy-in & new stakeholders

Moving forward, it would be hopeful to see more diverse actors entering the water space, as well as seeing more investors, policy makers and companies collaborate - from inside and outside the water space.

Building up such an ecosystem would foster dialogue and the co-creation of new policies and financing models, while also engaging the public meaningfully and transparently. To create this water-secure future, UpLink, the open innovation platform of the World Economic Forum, is building an innovation ecosystem that will source and scale water solutions from around the world.

The first – of five – water challenges, was funded by HCL Group and supported by ARUP, PA Consulting, Water Foundry, The Kingdom of the Netherlands – Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, The Nature Conservancy and Xylem. It sourced innovations focusing on improving data-driven decision making, restoring water quality, and strengthening climate change freshwater resilience.

Two hundred and twenty-seven submissions from 45 countries were submitted to the platform and 10 Top Innovators were, after a careful selection process, invited to join the UpLink Innovation Network. This network provides these organizations with access to connections, visibility, and support. Each of the 10 innovators will receive CHF175,000 to scale their start-ups and improve access to freshwater around the world.

Here are the top 10 innovators who are securing the world's freshwater:

bNovate Technologies (Switzerland) - An automatic, remote biosensor to monitor and detect any change of bacterial concentration in water supplies, dramatically reducing the current measurement time from several days to just minutes.

Epic Cleantec (USA) - Deploys onsite water treatment and reuse systems in buildings, re-using up to 95% of the water for non-potable applications, such as toilet flushing, irrigation, laundry, as well as organic soil amendments, while also recovering heat energy through wastewater.

Indra Water (India) - Electrically driven decentralised wastewater treatment solution with no added chemicals in its primary treatment. It has treated over 750 million litres of water for reuse, using zero chemicals, having 95% water recovery rate and a 75% lower footprint.

Kilimo (Argentina) - Is a SaaS-enabled marketplace that uses big data and machine learning to verify, improve, and offset water usage in agriculture. Kilimo helps farmers optimize irrigation and sell water offsets to companies that want to become water neutral.

Majik Water (Kenya) - An atmospheric water generator system which uses proven condensation-based techniques to capture water moisture from the air. Majik serves communities who are not able to access safe drinking water, offering a turnkey solution.

NatureDots Private Limited (India) - Is de-risking inland fish farms and water managers from ecological stressors, such as deteriorating water bodies, lack of water data and climate risk, through their “AquaNurch” enabling remote-control and real-time monitoring of aqua-farms.

Oneka Technologies (Canada) - A wave-powered desalination solution to produce drinking water using renewable energy created through waves. Oneka is drought proof, produces no greenhouse gas emissions, requires no land space, and is grid-independent.

Openversum (Switzerland) - A locally-assembled and managed, biodegradable membrane filter that removes pathogen heavy metals from water. Through its microfranchising model, entrepreneurs can manufacture and sell filters, creating a sustainable business.

RainGrid Inc. (Canada) - Building community-scale, property-based, digital networks for net-zero residential property rainfall runoff, while generating verifiable ecosystem credits and restoring the health and security of ground water and watersheds.

Wateroam Pte Ltd (Singapore) - Produces safe, speedy and high-quality safe drinking water without electricity. The filter is a lightweight system that weighs only 2.5kg, allowing anyone to easily transport the system over any terrain and brought swiftly into hard-to-reach locations.

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