World Water Day is held annually on March 22 to focus attention on the importance of freshwater resources. Issues like water scarcity, which plagues many underdeveloped nations, lead to famine and disease. Many nonprofit organizations and companies are working to make sure that people around the world have access to clean water in their daily lives. Countries like the U.S., which have more developed water infrastructures, also wrestle with efficiency and quality issues.
Businesses see opportunity in these problems. Entrepreneurs and investors have been attracted to the water industry in recent years to help find and finance solutions for the most pressing water issues in the U.S. and around the world.
A nonprofit organization in San Francisco, Calif., called Imagine H2O encourages entrepreneurs to turn water challenges into business opportunities. It launched a prize competition three years ago to inspire innovative technology solutions to water issues. Imagine H2O offers funding and incubation to help support the most innovative new start-up companies. Kate Gasner, Imagine H2O’s prize manager, spoke to Knowledge@Wharton High School about the organization’s mission and the critical ways that water and business intersect.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: What are the key water issues facing the world today?
Kate Gasner: The big issues around water are scarcity and quality. There’s also a big distinction between the problems that are faced by countries with an existing infrastructure and those that are developing water infrastructure. Imagine H2O has focused thus far on areas where the infrastructure is already in place [but where] the operational components of the water system need improving. World Water Day often focuses on the other end of the spectrum, which is the public health perspective – access to clean water, availability of water. Water encapsulates so many different scenarios. One is that you don’t have enough water to get through the day or grow enough crops. That requires a very different solution than a huge metropolitan city that has enough water, but is not doing enough with it in terms of efficiency, treatment or proper disposal. The companies that Imagine H2O has worked with have been focused on developed countries with infrastructure or industry that requires advanced technological approaches. In the future, we may focus on the other piece of puzzle, which is giving everyone access to enough water.
KWHS: How did Imagine H2O acknowledge World Water Day?
Gasner: In order to celebrate World Water Day, we thought it would be best to highlight the business innovations and the businesses that are focused on solving the problems around water. One of our biggest events of the year is the Water Entrepreneurs Showcase, which we had on Tuesday night. We convened over 200 people in the water industry — including entrepreneurs, investors, experts and students. We announced the winners of our prize. We got a robust group of startups that are doing a variety of cool things in the water space. This year we were focused on wastewater – water that has been somehow contaminated agriculturally, industrially or through municipal waste. [Our big winner] was Bilexys of Brisbane, Australia, [which has a technology that converts wastewater to valuable chemicals].
KWHS: Where do water and business intersect?
Gasner: Water is a mission-critical resource for everything. It’s very hard to appreciate that there is so much water involved in the products that we purchase and in our day-to-day operations. When it comes to industry, agriculture and residences, water is a basic and fundamental component. The water and the business world haven’t overlapped very much so far. There are great examples of very successful water businesses, but in terms of innovative entrepreneurial businesses, we’re trying to bridge a gap.
KWHS: What is the so-called blue tech economy?
Gasner: It’s easy to miss that there is a huge industry around water, in terms of the infrastructure required both in the municipal setting – the miles of pipes and the facilities needed to transport and treat water – in addition to the industrial setting [where products are made]. The food and beverage industry requires a lot of water processing. Energy production also requires a lot of water processing. When I hear blue tech economy, I think of how we are bringing technologies to all [this infrastructure] and these industries that are water-dependent.
KWHS: What is an example of an entrepreneurial venture working on innovative water technologies?
Gasner: One of our first winners was WaterSmart Software. It offers a software platform for the water conservation programs of utility companies. The software ties into the billing system and visualizes water savings for utility customers. Customers can log in and see how much they are saving and how they compare to their neighbors. It’s a user-friendly platform to track water use. Utilities are really interested in it because their conservation [efforts] require consumer education. The people we honor are really good business people and that also makes them good water stewards [good resource managers].
KWHS: How can young people get involved in water-related issues?
Gasner: Awareness is key. The accessibility we have in this country to water insulates us completely from the issues at hand. The fact that we so easily turn on the tap and have so few restrictions or financial consequences for using a ton of water shelters us from the problems [of scarcity]. Keeping an eye out for business solutions is really important. In my education, environmental problems were couched in the handicapped arena where you needed a lot of regulation to make a difference in resource management. That’s not the case. We’re seeing businesses that are very successful because they have an innovative platform, a good strategy and great team, like any other startup. To treat the water industry as a viable business place is going to be really important. It does a lot of good for the world and saves a resource that is incredibly important.
What are the critical water issues facing the world today in both developed and underdeveloped countries?
Explain some ways that business and industry are water-dependent.
Why is a company like WaterSmart Software so important to the marketplace?
Let’s Hear Your Comments!
Some critics say that teenagers in the U.S. are among the most wasteful when it comes to important resources like water; they are lazy about conservation and they just don’t care. Do you agree? Why or why not? What are you specifically doing to address water issues? Post your comments to the story and on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/whartonhs.