Innovation is Only Innovation if it Meets a Need

Posted by Paul O'Callaghan on Tuesday, November 26th, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Editorial by Paul O’Callaghan

Following the fall whirlwind of travel and tradeshows, it has been nice to have time to reflect on what I have seen and learned over the past few weeks.

The Water Bubble

There was much talk about water hubs, water innovation and water investment. One memorable observation made in conversation on this that resonated with me was ‘the optimism is exhausting.’

There does indeed seem to be degree of autosuggestion at play here. Warren Buffet is famously quoted for saying, ‘Be Fearful When Others Are Greedy and Greedy When Others Are Fearful.” There is almost a case of everyone trying very hard to convince himself or herself very hard of something.

If you have read the book, “Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” you will see examples like the Dutch Tulip Bulb crisis, where people get carried along in a self-induced euphoria that can create a ‘bubble.’

While the bubbles inevitably burst, they are often gateways to and heralds for change. When the IT bubble burst, we did not go back to pen and paper and mainframe computing. The world was forever changed, and we moved to a world of Internet connectivity where mobile phones and Google were born along with many other services that we now can’t imagine life without.

There were high profile winners and many that disappeared.

The same is likely to be true of water. In terms of water rhetoric, it’s hard to imagine that the current level of hype could be sustained for more than a decade. People have short attention spans and constantly need new things to talk about. A quick method to gauge the mood of the nation, or many nations, is using Google trends, a brief look at this revealed that notably the search terms ‘water innovation’ and ‘water hub’ are still on the ascendancy.

Given the current focus around water innovation, it is worth making a few grounding observations.

Innovation Must Meet Client Need

Edward De Bono, the famous lateral thinker, observed that a door that opens up, instead of out, is not innovation; it is just a different type of door.

There is a view out there that water utilities and industries need to ‘embrace water innovation.’ In fact it’s the other way around, water innovation needs to embrace and solve the problems of water utilities.

Using carbon dioxide to launder clothes, sanitizers to clean our hands, and vacuums to flush toilets are all examples of ‘water innovation,’ because they address the need to reduce water usage by providing water services without using water.

At BlueTech Research, we analyze water innovation. We look for needs first (markets) and then for technologies, products, services and companies which can meet these needs.

In our Innovation Tracker, it is reassuring to see that the highest concentration of disruptive technologies (based on our Disrupt-o-Meter) are focused around energy and resource recovery and much of this around sludge management, given that sludge represents up to 50% of operational costs and represents the single biggest segment of the water technology market.

One example in the water industry of an area where there are unmet needs is odour management.

There is more technology innovation required around odour issues that remains an Achilles Heel of modern day wastewater treatment. Ask any wastewater treatment plant operator what are their top three headaches, and a penny to a pound, they will include odour in that list.

Given the fact that approximately 4% of the human genome is coded for odour, it is no surprise that we are sensitive to such issues.

BlueTruffle™ & Disrupt-o-Meter™ Picks from WEFTEC, WATEC and Aquatech

Over the past few weeks, our team has traversed over a half a million square feet of tradeshow floors on three continents. Acting as your eyes and ears, to assist in technology scouting and corporate foresight, we have highlighted our top BlueTruffle™ and Disrupt-o-Meter™ picks.

WEFTEC, Chicago

BlueTruffle™ picks from WEFTEC include the Pasteurization Technology Group (PTG),

Pasteurization Technology Group (winner of the 2011 BlueTruffle™ Award at BlueTech Forum) has a compelling value proposition: Use low-grade heat energy to disinfect wastewater thereby saving on the use of high grade electrical energy. The management team has displayed tenacity, resilience and a measured approach over the past number of years, and this is yielding to success. The company closed a modest round of $5M in Series A financing in March 2013 from EIC Ventures and Kennington Ltd.

Pain Point Addressed: Operational costs associated with wastewater disinfection. 

WATEC, Israel

One of my top Disrupt-o-Meter picks WATEC was the company WellToDo. Part of the Kinrot Incubator, now owned by Hutchison, the company is just one year old and has a catalytic nitrate reduction technology that can be used to treat nitrate impacted groundwater wells. (See Top Picks in the new Innovation Tracker entries section).

We would classify this technology as Highly Disruptive as it represents a different approach to addressing nitrates in groundwater compared to incumbent technologies, such as ion exchange and reverse osmosis membranes. 

Pain Point Addressed: Elimination of the need to dispose of a concentrate waste stream produced by alternative technologies such as ion exchange and reverse osmosis.

Aquatech, Amsterdam

Qua launched the CeraQ™ product, a new tubular ceramic membrane product. We classify this as a highly disruptive innovation as it can open up new applications for membrane technology and presents an alternative to polymeric membranes. 

Pain Point Addressed: The need for membranes that are tolerant to the presence of hydrocarbons for use in the oil and gas sector to treat produced water.

Aquionics launched the PearlSenseT254, which is the first UV transmittance monitor that incorporates a UV LED. This is a great launch market for UV LED’s where the power output required is low, and the form factor has clear benefits. The key here was to see the less obvious launch point as an analytics products as opposed to as a disinfection product.

Israel Truly Is A ‘Startup Nation’

The book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle marveled at how a country just 60 years old with just 7.1 million people, could produce more start-ups than countries like the UK, Japan and Canada. My experience at WATEC confirmed for me the label is well deserved when it comes to water technologies. The Innovation Pavilion at WATEC had over 36 companies. Many of the companies are less than two years old, which means they weren’t at the last show, and it will be interesting to see how many are there in 2015. In the water world, with slow life cycles, this puts these companies on a par with fruit flies, which of course have very fast rates of evolution and adaptation. We will track the progress of these companies with interest and report back to you.

Consumer Electronics and Water Technologies at Aquatech

One other thing I observed at Aquatech was much smarter consumer products; fashionable, attractive units with user-friendly interfaces and displays. Under the hood, it looked more familiar, resins and membrane filters.

At Aquatech Amsterdam, you are left with the impression that the Jony Ive school of Apple design has met the world of water when it comes to consumer water treatment. The key market is clearly not Europe and North America where we trust the water coming out of our taps, but the middle class kitchens and offices of the emerging economies.

BlueTech Innovations To Meet Our Clients’ Needs

Our goal was to follow our own mantra and deliver innovation that meets our clients needs. The vision, in a time-constrained, rapidly moving and data overloaded world, is to provide pithy, digestible intelligence on demand.