By: Tom Burton
Massachusetts’ clean energy sector is one of the strongest and fastest growing in the nation. With robust educational resources from numerous world class universities and a supportive political environment, Massachusetts’ clean energy technology companies have a healthy development system in place. This structure or “cluster” is the next step for Massachusetts’ water technology industry. Water technology companies already generate an estimated $4 billion for the state’s economy and the state government approximates that nearly 300 companies, organizations, and institutions involved in water technology operate within Massachusetts’ borders. While $4 billion represents a small portion of the state economy, the sector shows strong promise for growth domestically and internationally.
In 2011, Governor Deval Patrick visited Israel where he toured some of the country’s world-renowned water technology innovations. While there, Israeli leaders repeatedly told him that they were interested in partnering with Massachusetts’ water technology companies. Since the trip, Governor Patrick has made a concerted effort to push Massachusetts’ non-clustered water technology companies to cooperate and innovate along similar lines as the biotech and clean energy clusters. Moving from a disparate collection of companies into a collective organization is an important goal for Massachusetts’ water industry because of the forecasted need for water technologies worldwide. Today, the global water industry generates an estimated $360 to $600 billion, but with more farming, more people, and more extraction of oil and natural gas, a process that can be water-intensive, access to clean water may become a problem for a larger portion of the world’s population than the 1 billion who already have inconsistent access to clean drinking water.
Again in 2012, a delegation of Massachusetts water technology representatives, including Tom Burton, head of Mintz Levin’s Energy and Clean Technology Practice section and co-chair of the ‘Massachusetts Water Innovation Mission to Israel”, traveled to the country in a direct follow-up to the 2011 trip. Currently, the United States does not have a “Silicon Valley” for water technology, but Massachusetts, and especially the Boston area which alone has nearly 30 startups in the water innovation sector, could position itself in that role. David Goodtree, who co-chaired the mission, has pointed out that the Commonwealth would gain a lot of ground in this sector if Israeli water companies choose to expand to Massachusetts.
To spur the development of a water technology cluster, a group of executives, academics and government leaders created the Symposium on Water Innovation in Massachusetts (SWIM), which held its 2nd conference in June 2013. SWIM aims to “bring abundant clean water to the world through local innovation, global export, and a connected community of business, academia, and government.” As a follow up to the two trips to Israel by Massachusetts’ leaders, the New England Israel Business Council partnered with the Israel Economic Mission to bring an Israeli water delegation to Massachusetts from June 19-20, which coincided with the SWIM conference and allowed the group to attend the first day.
During the conference, a group of SWIM participants, including Per Suneby, President & CEO, BioConversion Solutions, proposed the creation of a New England Water Innovation Network (NEWI), which would connect water technology firms with laboratories and operating facilities, such as sewage treatment plants, to prove and commercialize these technologies more quickly. Companies such as Oasys Water, which develops advanced desalination technologies and whose chief executive officer Jim Matheson has written about the need for collaborative innovation and “clustering” by the state’s water industry, would pay a membership fee to NEWI in exchange for the network’s resources.
Besides Oasys, Massachusetts has a strong number of water technology companies from startups to established entities like Koch Membrane Systems based in Wilmington (water treatment and industrial filtration) and CDM Smith in Cambridge (global consulting, engineering and construction). At the SWIM conference in June, three startups were highlighted as finalists for the Headwaters Innovation Prize. Crowdio is a startup that wants to use a combination of data mining, technology and crowd sourcing to expand water testing throughout the world and make people more aware of the safety of the water they drink. Drinkwell wants to transform the worldwide lack of access to clean water into an economic opportunity by building pumps that use arsenic mitigation technology to provide clean water. An entrepreneur then sells the clean water locally. Finally, NanoMembranes seeks to improve the efficiency and yield of water desalination by creating ultra-permeable membranes out of nanoporous graphene 1000 times thinner than polymers, with a flow ten times greater than polymers, and which would reduce energy use by up to 66% in the desalination process.
These startups are a small representation of the myriad and diverse water technology companies growing in Massachusetts. For the same reasons as the clean energy and biotech sectors have burgeoned here, water technology is poised for similar expansion. Aware of this fact, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center recently hired Michael Murphy as the business development manager for water innovation where he will look to facilitate the building of the Commonwealth’s nascent water technology cluster. Mr. Murphy comes with four years of experience on the water supply and sanitation team at the World Bank as well as building wells with the Peace Corps. World demand for clean water and for technologies to provide that clean water will only grow in the coming years and Massachusetts water technology sector is positioning itself to be there for that need.