The key stages of water innovation were the focus of a fascinating conversation with BlueTech Research founder Paul O’Callaghan and (don’t) Waste Water podcast host Antoine Walter.
The podcast episode, How Long will it Take to Grow – the Four Stages of Water Innovation, takes an in-depth look at technology development and adoption. Paul, who recently completed a PhD in the Dynamics of Water Innovation, and Antoine explore some critical questions such as, why does it take so long for innovations to enter the mass market? Why, despite a successful six-month pilot, could a water innovation not be flying off the shelves?
Paul uses real-life examples to explore complex areas and gives insights into what he believes the future will hold for innovation in the water industry. They also discuss the making of the Brave Blue World documentary.
Here, we present a transcript of the interview. The podcast can be heard at https://bit.ly/36xvR3R
Antoine Walter: What can you tell me about BlueTech? What is the gap in the market that you were aiming to close?
Paul O’Callaghan: I’ve been in the sector for about 20 plus years now. When I was younger and I was working in different parts of the industry, always noticed that everyone was so enthusiastic about water. They all wanted to make a difference. There were inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, and yet many of those startup companies failed because they were chasing the wrong market, looking at the wrong opportunity and they weren’t having an impact through their work. And I thought that’s a pity because these water challenges are, are huge. And there’s only a certain amount of human capital that we have to make a difference. And if we could do one thing with BlueTech, it’s to help make people more efficient, to save them a year, to save them, you know, wasting funding on pursuing an opportunity, that’s not going to be profitable or created value for them.
We bring water technology experts and we apply the science to the study of trying to understand truly does a technology solve a problem in the water sector, if so, what, and to help companies make good decisions. In a nutshell, that’s it.
Is it any kind of company that you support?
It all started with working with the smaller companies, startup companies, because I realized I could make a real difference to them. Yhat broadened out to working with investors, venture capital investors who are becoming interested in water. Ultimately the larger companies realized that they needed to be innovating and they were curious to know, where should we invest? Who should we partner with? Nowadays we actually work with a lot of end users like water utilities, large corporations and food and bev and tech and other areas where they’re trying to figure out how do they get to zero water impact in the next 10 years? What solutions should they be using in their factories or their organizations? So, it’s really right across the value chain from research institutes, investors, entrepreneurs to larger water technology firms. And as I say now, increasingly the people who are trying to solve problems in their own businesses as well.
Let’s discuss the incredible Brave Blue Word documentary airing on Netflix. How did you get Liam Neeson, Matt Damon and Jaden Smith and Netflix across the same table to build a documentary, then broadcast it everywhere, translated into 29 languages?
I think the appetite was out there. People wanted to move on from the doom and gloom narrative about water and the apocalyptic tales that we hear and people were really ready to tell a different story, because those of us who are in the sector, we know that there is a different story here. There are solutions to these challenges. There are a few times in your life when you start something and you realize that the universe is almost willing to project it into existence, it felt from the get-go I was pushing on an open door, that things were conspiring to help make the project happen.
I think it was just that appetite that people like Matt Damon, who really cares very passionately about water and has spent a lot of his career when he’s not working in the film industry, focusing on this, the same with Jaden Smith, a young man who was very impassioned to want to make a difference in other parts of the world, but also closer to home. As for Liam Neeson, it just really resonated with him. He likes the characters in the story. He liked people who he could relate to and thought, this is a story we have to tell. So, I think it starts by asking. We knocked on doors and we persevered. I think also the fact that we were telling positive stories and ones that were about solutions and what we call the lighthouses in the film, I think that made a difference.
In all of that, you were doing a PhD. How did you manage to pack that into your agenda?
Everything helps everything else, I guess. The PhD was building on the 10 years of research of BlueTech, so we had a lot of information, a lot of data. I had really good collaborators, both in BlueTech and also in my promoter professor. There were times when I also got tremendous support from people within the water industry. At times it felt like people were willing it into existence. They wanted to know how long does it take, what are the key things that help the technology move along? A lot of these projects, they’re not about me so much as they’re about bringing people together with a common goal. It took time. It happened over four years, it wasn’t overnight.
Your PhD opens with staggering statistics, across a 300 sample, 9% of innovation in the water sector makes it through, all the stages come to life, which is a positive way to look at it. And now if you look at the negative way, 91% of innovation just dies. Is that any different from innovation in general, is the water sector like a special beast? Or is it really normal to see this 91% of clutter?
Somehow, the venture capital investment community would typically anticipate that 10% of their companies might, might make it, they might succeed. So the success rate is relatively in keeping with that trend. The surprising thing about the water sector is the number that don’t disappear or fail, and they don’t really make it. They kind of live in this kind of no man’s land, this grey area, where they’re neither very successful and yet they kind of hang on for a decade or two decades. That’s probably what’s most unique about the water sector compared to other industries.
But if we compare it to other industries in the venture capitalist world, when one company succeeds, it makes an Uber or a Netflix or something incredibly big. In the water sector, you don’t have spectacular successes but still you have a lot of in-betweens
That was one of the things that surprised me. When we tried to quantify the level of impact, that level of success, no company became a unicorn. There were certain technologies that became a unicorn market, where the market reached a billion dollars, but some companies that would be deemed to be successful in terms of the approving, the technology that demonstrated they’ve scaled it up, they don’t achieve that level one impact. They don’t create unicorn markets. So that was surprising actually, as a finding, for me even. I think it’s a combination of, it’s a very diverse sector, it’s made up of hundreds of thousands of different plants all over the world, different sizes and scales. And one of the ideas that we brought to bear in the thesis is that it’s a bit like genetic diversity. Water can be resilient to change because of that fragmented nature, it’s almost like a buffer against disruption.
You mean the water ecosystem of companies is looking exactly like the water itself? It is incredibly fragmented but that makes it also incredibly resilient in the age of COVID.
Yes, and we have been a very resilient sector throughout this last year or two now.
Another thing that was really striking in your study is, 35% of the water companies in the Netherlands invest into R&D. I was thinking that was a given, that everybody would be just investing but apparently not. You’re also making this comparison between the big companies, their turnover and what they invest actually in water and it’s a very low percentage. You also explain why it’s a low percentage, so it’s not really to blame them, but just to put that in context, you’re saying that SUEZ is spending around 0.4% of their turnover in R&D, for Xylem it’s 4%, for Evoqua it’s 1.5% for Kurita it’s 2.3%.Is there is not sufficient investment into R&D?
We’ve heard that from other companies subsequently after we publish this in conversations, other companies would say, yeah, that’s exactly where we are, as well. It seems very consistent. I don’t think the number itself is a major issue or something that we need to be concerned about. I think it’s an acceptable level of investment for a very large firm. The bit that we might want to be concerned about, the message we might want to focus on, is how much of that 2-4% results in growth to the business or a competitive advantage or value creation, because that’s what’s going to sustain that. And if companies see that return on 2-4%, well, then they might say, why don’t we invest 5 or 6% or 7 or 8%?
It’s that rate of success and it’s where the innovation is focused. Existing, larger firms are quite good at continued improvement, that’s often called sustaining innovation. It takes what we have, and it makes it a little bit better, a little bit like the way an automobile or a car becomes a little bit more fuel efficient every year, compared to the ones that we drove in the 1970s. I think there’s other types of innovation, which is radical, it’s completely new and we need to invest in that as well. It’s all about what type of innovation are you investing in? What type of research are you doing? And trying to really make sure that the people in the R&D centre, that when they go to their corporate managers and they report on the results that everyone is happy and pleased, and there’s no surprises. So, if it’s going to take seven or eight years, well, then it’s better that everyone understands that it’s going to take seven or eight years.
Anything that makes this process more efficient is good. And we begin by thinking that we want to innovate, but then we need to figure out what we really mean. Do we want to make something that’s better? Do we want to solve an unmet need? Do we want to solve a problem? How do you provide water to people who only earn $8 a day? How can you do that for 10% of their income? I believe it’s possible. I just believe that it hasn’t been figured out just yet, or at least if it has, it’s been figured out in some parts of the world, but it hasn’t been scaled up yet. And if we really try and understand at the early stages, what types of technologies we’re working on, then we can work out the best strategy.
It’s a little bit like saying I want to get a gold medal in the Olympics. But what event are you in? The rowing event? Are you in the high jump event? Are you in the marathon? Because depending on what events you want to go for, you might want to train for endurance. You might need certain skill sets. And I think if we break it down and say, I am investing in radical functionality, I need a crisis driven innovation. That’s going to require radical functionality. And I need very good leadership as well. Or another firm might say, my innovation is discontinuous. It’s like an electric car. It is a completely different value chain. I’m going to go for ceramic membranes, not polymeric membranes. This is discontinuous. Then you need a different factory, different manufacturing process, different technical standards. And, and you don’t need a crisis necessarily as long as you’re able to be a value-driven innovation. So just understanding that a bit better at the very start allows you to put the right team in place and have the right strategy in place and the right understanding of your risk profile and your timeline.
You mention two different terms, value driven innovation and crisis or need driven. What you show in your research is that there is one of these two types, which is incredibly more efficient, which drives much better results and it’s the crisis or need driven. Why is that?
Yes, you’re correct Antoine! It moves at literally half the speed that the value driven innovation does through the adoption cycle. It can half the timeline. And we saw that very clearly with the adoption of ultrafiltration membranes in the early 1990s, the outbreak of cryptosporidium in places like Milwaukee and the UK drove rapid regulation of the need to deal with cryptosporidium. And that drove rapid adoption of ultrafiltration membranes and drinking water treatment. If you hadn’t had that cryptosporidium outbreak in 1987 in Milwaukee, you would not have seen that level of uptake. And we see similar things with, for example, PFAS at the moment, if PFAS get regulated you could call it a crisis driven market where people are suffering from droughts, and that creates a need.
And that accelerates things like a war does it accelerates adoption. Now it’s a bit more risky because you need to make sure that there is a crisis, right? That there is regulation. And we’ve seen people who think there’s a crisis that end up waiting and waiting and waiting. And then the crisis never comes. People who think that sludge won’t be applied to land or that ballast water treatment would be regulated quickly. And of course it was delayed. And so that’s why those things move quicker, but you have to be certain that the conditions are right.
You have a very interesting concept, the WATA, water technology adoption, which has several phases. Can you take us through the steps?
This model is used in all sorts of different areas and has been for a long time. You can think about people who use technologies as the innovators. They want to try these things very, very early on, even if it’s not perfect. And then we have the early adopters, they come after the innovators, and that represents about 13.5% of the tool to market. And these are folks that when they’re interested, they’re usually quite innovative. They like trying and learning about new things, but it’s got to be proven to some extent. Ten you move into the early and late majority and that’s where the not 68% of the market would lie in the water sector, typically for us to get our technologies into the innovator section. And I think of when I graduated from my master’s degree in 1996, 97, the membrane bioreactor was at that stage.
So it was being piloted and it was being demonstrated at full scale. I actually ran one for Pfizer pharmaceuticals. It was a Zenon and Kubota head-to-head race to MBRs and only one would make it in that instance, I think it was Zenon that made it, but the point was it was in the innovator section. And that can take about five to eight years, so by the time you’ve completed all of your pilot testing and got maybe three full scale demonstration facilities up and running, that can take five to eight years. Typically, that gives you a sense for that. And then when you move through the early adopters, these are the people that are going to buy the first 25 or 30 of your reference plants. So, this is, it’s not yet called for a tender document. It’s not being specified by consulting engineers.
There are probably only two or three companies that may be even offering the technology that can take another six to eight years for it to move through that section. Then after that period of time has passed, you’re into the early majority and the late majority and you can stay in that sector for that segment for about 12 to 16 years. So that gives you a sense that it moves at a certain pace. And when you’re very busy with your piloting, and you’re testing that to take a certain amount of time, then you’re setting the first units. That’s another period of time. And then after that, you’re in this section where, oh, people are actually calling for this, it’s becoming, it’s at trade shows, it’s at conferences. It becomes easier.
If we put that in perspective, it means 30, 40 years for the adoption of technology?
From the point where you take an idea out of a laboratory and you begin your first pilot to the point where it now is right in the middle of the market. That whole timeframe that can take about 12 to 16 years. If you’re a startup company today in 2021, and you just did your first pilot, you would expect that maybe in 12 to 16 years time, this would be a mainstream market opportunity. That’s growing very, very rapidly. And it might move a little bit faster if it’s a crisis driven or a needs driven market, but those are the average timelines.
When I was working on pilots and I was frustrated to see that the pilot was successful and still the markets wouldn’t just take it. What you’re looking at is a timeline of 10, eight years, six years, if it’s incredibly successful in an answering to crisis, but still not six months?
Exactly, and I think one of the strongest bits of feedback that I’ve had from people who read the thesis is, well, this is for the first time we can now, go in front of the company and the management team in our company. And we can say, Hey, look, this isn’t just us. This is objectively based on a lot of data over a long period of time. This is quite typical. And yes, there are ways you can have the time sometimes. And there are certain strategies that work in certain cases, but there are other limiting factors like the procurement cycle. It takes quite a while to tender a job and to procure a job, to construct a project itself that can take quite a bit of time in terms of design phase building. So it allows us to be more real, but you’re correct. The iPhone, you don’t see things like the iPhone. Although I think even the iPhone probably was being developed for quite a period of time before we sell it in the shops.
Maybe you as BlueTech, you have a view of what’s happening in these very early stages, but us, the usual water professionals, we don’t know these early stages.
A part of it is down to the fact that technology development is a race. It’s a race against funding running out against patents expiring against competition entering the market. And it’s a race against commoditization, so when an MBR was first developed, there are only a few companies that had the know-how, the expertise, the secrets, to know how to do that. And they had proprietary technologies, which were controlled and patented. Nowadays, you know, pretty much anybody with the right designing expertise could design an MBR. You can purchase the membranes and you can design an MBR so when it gets the point, when the knowledge is so widely spread, and the art is well known within the engineering community, at that point, the race is over. The technology, race needs, innovators, entrepreneurs, typically who build companies around being able to be the only people or a few people who can offer that technology.
And eventually it becomes more and more mainstream. So even with the iPhone, you can buy a smartphone nowadays from so many different people, but there was a period of time when the smaller number of companies that provided a smartphone with touch screen. And that’s the reason why it takes time to get into the engineering books.
It is a bit sad that you have this new generation of people that are trained to a technology, which is not the technology of today, it is the technology of a decade ago or 15 years ago
We all know that our knowledge is outdated so fast, these days, that once we leave university, it’s not like ‘that’s it’. Therefore, it’s the skills you learn about biotechnology, about material science, about fluid dynamics, about engineering, whatever those principles are, you apply them to try, to understand these newer technologies. And the peer reviewed literature is fantastic because it keeps you current even more current. Again, our papers that are presented at conferences, which we at BlueTech would go to quite a lot, because that’s where you get the real up-to-date knowledge. So if you go to something like Singapore Water Week or WEFTEC or something like this, the papers there are the latest. And as long as you can apply critical thoughts based on your science and engineering disciplines, then you can stay current and you’re never boxed into yesterday’s solutions. We need the science and engineering, but we can apply it to the study of any of these emerging technologies.
Increasingly the water sector is becoming more multidisciplinary, you know, 30 or 40 years ago, that textbook, was a textbook for people who studied civil and environmental engineering. These days, we don’t just need civil and environmental engineers. We need those plus data scientists, people who have expertise in computer algorithms and sensors and biotechnology, and it’s that cross collaboration of solutions. So within aquaporin, it is very different because it’s taking a protein and trying to stabilize that protein in a membrane that can then function in a different application, could be forward osmosis, for example. So you’re correct. Nereda is easier to understand and easier to apply. Things like bio-electrical chemical systems, or even, you know, satellite-based leak detection, things like this are coming from different disciplines, but I think that’s where probably the exciting opportunities are. And indeed I would add business model innovation and financial innovation to that as well.
I was just thinking of this snowflake effect. Everyone is a special snowflake. It can come with your thing, which is proven with thousands of plants in the UK, it’s not France and France is specific. So it’s not going to work in France. Do you think this kind of village thinking is also something which still comes in the way of innovation in the water sector?
You do see that phenomenon quite a bit. It worked in your bowl, but the wastewater might be different over here. And then you see the same thing playing out in the United States itself – it’s working in California, but you know, it might not work in Missouri and it’s going to be piloted there. They came up with what was called the 10 states standard at one point in time to try and have something that was widely recognized that people could accept environmental technology verification has been tried.
There are differences in nuances, in different types of water, drinking, water sources, and wastewater. So, there is an element of that. You do need to understand the local context and things do need to be piloted, particularly in the industrial context where industrial applications do tend to be quite diverse, even more so than municipal wastewater, where it might be just temperature and strength to the key variables.
It is an issue. I think, sharing data and allowing people to realize ‘Hey, you know, this has actually happened. And you know, there is like a hundred plants out there already.’ That type of information gives confidence for us collectively to understand that this is a real technology. Now it’s not just being piloted and it’s not a bad thing that it’s been developed in France and separately. We do see that sometimes you get simultaneous development of technologies in Japan, for example, and the same technology might be being developed in the United States. And, and that’s good, but sometimes they only make it in one place and they never make their way out beyond that one application, which is also quite interesting when you see something that is hugely successful in one part of the world, but it doesn’t seem to manage, to break through, into other parts of the world.
Japan comes back quite a lot in your business because quite often all these technologies seem to have a first life in Japan. And then one decade later, they go out in the world.
Japan has a few unique things that characterize it. There’s an emphasis on quality above just about anything else. I think anyone that knows a little bit about the country and its culture would know that. I think when they looked at ceramic membranes, now there’s a broader story about why ceramic membranes were adopted in Japan. It relates back to a semiconductor manufacturer that they were looking for an alternative outlet for ceramics and water provided one. But the point was they were willing to pay a premium for a superior technology that would last longer. It would outlast polymeric membranes and that willingness to pay the premium for that quality was what drove the rapid adoption of ceramics in Japan. Over time of course, once you can get that adopted, the pattern you see is that manufacturing scales up, adoption goes up. And then hopefully, over time, you get that reduction in cost and maybe more widespread adoption of the technology.
How do you find those early adopters?
The early adopter, someone once told me, is a person, not a utility. It’s not a corporation, it’s an individual within that group. So, how do you find them? Well, they’re often the people that are out there speaking and presenting at conferences. The skill you need is to try and find those folks and then work with them because they’ll be your partners.
If I recall the few early adopters I’ve ever met, they are in that business for 30, 40 years. All the ones I know are going to retire in the next decade. Once they’re no longer there, a new generation is going to replace them?
Well, we are losing a lot of institutional knowledge, there’s no doubt about that in the next 10 years. I love working with those types of people, knowledge is not built up overnight. We do need to transfer that though. One potential change I’ve noticed is when we speak about future scenarios to different groups of water professionals. We gave a presentation one day to water utilities, and we talked about the utility of the future and decentralized distributed models, and the first reaction was, that makes me nervous because there could be biofilms on the point-of-use filter and who’s going to replace the filter and who’s liable for this?
The next morning we gave the same presentation to a group of young professionals and the reaction in the room was quite different. And when we asked the question, do you have any concerns about maintenance? No. No. That would be a cloud-based system where it could be a service-based business model. A lot of it can be done remotely or it’ll trigger a reaction, which would cause someone to go to that site and replace that, we’ll know because of sensors and data. So, sometimes the next generation we might find have less limited thinking. I suppose there’s an opportunity in that. As long as we understand all the science behind it and the principles and combining that open-mindedness perhaps it’s just different.
Facts don’t convince people, you have to bring an emotion to bring a story around it. When you look at scientific papers, all of them tell you there’s that problem, and we solve it and technically it’s incredible. It’s difficult to build a story on that. Marketing is seen as something negative when at the end of the day, telling a good story brings everyone forward.
Marketing shouldn’t get a bad rap. We just need to figure out how do we best serve the people that we’re trying to help and what is it we’re doing for them? And if we think of what we’re trying to do for end-users and we work backwards from there, and it’s not about us, it’s not about that particular sensor. You understand the story. And very importantly, you have empathy. You empathize with the people you’re trying to help. And if you do that, then you will be able to market to them. And by that, in some ways that’s simply means change how they think, that’s how you change the world.
That’s how you win people’s hearts and minds. And that’s what I did notice when I was traveling in places like Singapore or the Netherlands or Israel, when you can get ordinary people to engage with this topic in a way that they Singaporeans know that this is very, very important to their national security. And you can, you can hop in a taxi cab in Singapore and have a conversation about water before too long. And you figure that out because everyone knows an awful lot about it. The same is true in the Netherlands. Same is true in places like Israel. So, you know, we do need to market. I think some countries have done that better than others and some countries it’s been easier for them because it’s just so obvious.
There’s a pattern in the three countries you were citing. When there’s a problem, there’s high awareness. If it wasn’t for the UN sustainable development goals, who would know that 80% of the world’s wastewater is still untreated today?
Well, you know where I’m speaking to you from today in Ireland, the Irish Water story about water charges has become notorious. It’s the perfect example of how not to do marketing. They tried to introduce water charges, which, you know, most developed world countries have water charges. Now they did try to do it during a financial recession, 2008, 2009 in the middle of a very deep financial crisis, so their timing was bad. They were out in the streets, protesting. My mother-in-law was protesting against paying for her water. I mean, she’s not a lady who is a revolutionary, she doesn’t go to the streets willy-nilly to wave flags and yet she felt so strongly about this.
How do you do something so wrong in terms of marketing? We’re not talking a lot of money here. Maybe it was a hundred euros a year. Maybe it was 50 euros a year, but people have this perception that water comes from the sky, it’s free, but they didn’t understand that we’re leaking an awful lot of this water. And they also failed to understand that we have problems here with quality. There’s a lot of agriculture run off from fields that pollutes water sources, they’re all septic tanks that cause problems, there’s pesticides, there’s lead pipes. There are a lot of issues here that need to be solved and that needs to happen. So somewhere on the line, that story did not get told. And it was very, very hard to put that genie back in the box. I don’t see they’ll ever be able to, not at least in the next 10 years anyway, bring in water charges here. There are lessons to be learned.
Do you think cross-pollination is something that could help the water move to the next scene?
Increasingly we’re seeing a trend where everybody from white goods manufacturers, to people who make consumer goods are beginning to look at the decentralized water market. They have no vested interest in being tied to an existing system. They do bring different ideas to bear. I think the challenge or the opportunity, depending on which way you want to look at it, is to remember that the existing water industry is going to be around for a very, very long time.
It needs to be around for a very, very long time. But if you want to address that unicorn, you mentioned with the SDG goals, at 1.8 billion people that’s a huge opportunity. It probably would be met with nonlinear thinking. Somewhat some form of lateral thinking. And we are noticing larger companies setting up special units that are distinct from the main business. I mean, it’s not to come down on engineers. I mean, I’m pretty sure Elon Musk is a good engineer but it’s people who are perhaps coming out with a fresh perspective. I think there’s a balance there and it’s important. We do need people that can continue to build a drinking water treatment plant using sand filtration and coagulation.
Sometimes good enough is much better than nothing. How do we create the conditions of good enough to encourage innovation?
What we’re seeing is people out there desperately looking for a solution, that’s good enough. And one of them that they’ve widely adopted, whether we like it or whatever we think about it, there are over 200 million people in the world now that rely on some form of containerized, bottled water for their safe water. There’s, there’s more money spent in California every year on bottled water than there is invested in utility water in the developing world, Mexico City, for example. That’s frightening in one sense that so many people would rely on that. It’s not as convenient as turning on a tap, but it’s a solution. I think to come up with solutions, which are safe and good enough. We need to put ourselves in these people’s shoes.
Also I think just completely re-engineering in the home. There’s a great initiative that I’m a fan of called the 50L Home at the moment, which is designed to re-engineer the house, so that you live comfortably with access to everything you want and need from water, all the services, but with 50 liters per day. If you completely eradicate that problem, you can get there, so let’s not ever become overly attached to one type of solution and think there’s a moral high ground here. You simply want the best that you can possibly get for people at an affordable price and then get them on the right path.
We are all one year into this COVID crisis. It’s probably the best point in time to say here’s what we can change and how water innovation can drive this forward. How can we leverage that momentum?
COVID-19 is an issue which has taught us that we’re not isolated. We’re interconnected, and we need to pull together if we want to solve it. Now COVID-19 will come and go, gust like the Spanish flu came and went in 1914. Climate change, unfortunately, won’t be like that. There’s no vaccine that someone’s going to come up with to make that go away. Likewise population growth, ageing infrastructure, urbanization, deteriorating water quality, none of those things are going away but they they’re similar in one sense to the analogy in that they should create the environment. Like when you have a baby and you’re willing to pay a fortune for a new buggy, they should create the willingness because we’re all facing these issues. They’re not existential. They’re not far, far away. They’re closer than we think.
So those things are still there and they’re the bigger picture and they share the commonality. I think those are probably the longer term issues that will drive the type of changes you’re talking about in behaviour.
If you were to bet on the technologies out there in these early stages, which one would you bet on to become a unicorn?
I wouldn’t bet on one. I think the area you’d have to bet on would be any solution out there that can deal with the top three most pressing needs. We have got too little water, too much water and poor quality water and as long as you’re tackling one of those issues or all of them or multiple ones – and I would include blue-green infrastructure, this isn’t an investment area, but I do believe that increasingly you’ve got to go upstream to get these things right.
You can’t solve everything at the end of the pipe. You have really got to think more holistically and more at a systems level. And if you get it right at a systems level, by getting the catchment, right, restoring the habitats, getting the ecosystem services, right, you’re going a long way towards mitigating storm and flooding, towards deteriorating water, quality eutrophication, and towards scarcity by hanging onto the water. How you turn that into an investment opportunity? That’s a different thing, but there are ways you can combine digital with blue-green – that’s a super exciting possibility. You’re combining really simple low-tech with really advanced high-tech and that’s the type of stuff that I get excited about.
What is the most exciting project you’ve been working on and why?
I’m working on Brave Blue World part two at the moment and that’s exciting because it’s new and creative. Exploring that and all these stories about ancient wisdom in water, combining that with modern technology and looking at how different people have coped with some of the issues we’re facing in the past.
What’s your favourite part of your current job?
Research, continually learning, working with great people. I love seeing the young team members coming on in their careers. I got a lot of satisfaction and fulfilment out of seeing that they’re realizing their potential. And just working with good people
What is the thing you care about the most when you’re working on a new project and what’s the one you care the least about?
Of what quality, that’s probably the most important thing of anything. Everything comes secondary to that. It’s not that we don’t have to make everything match up, but I think that’s the most important thing.
Do you have sources to recommend, to keep up with the water and wastewater market trends?
Of course, BlueTech Research. I do think that we do a good job of that and I think that it’s something we’re very passionate about. Other than that podcasts like yours, Antoine. I think there’s a body of work that you’re creating here that is exceptionally powerful.
What is the best place to follow your work?
https://www.braveblue.world/ where we communicate around project, the impact that we’re having, the ongoing work we’re doing and the awards the film is winning.
https://www.bluetechresearch.com/ for the research and analysis work that we do. We’re always available and we love chatting with people about water innovation. We do that at our event BlueTech Forum, and we look forward to that coming back online. A few different avenues there, depending on which people choose to engage with.
Thanks a lot, Paul, for all this wisdom you shared with our listeners.
Thank you for the time you took to research this interview. Huge respect for that, it made for a very engaging conversation – thank you very much.