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SAVING THE WORLD'S WATER: SOUTHEAST ASIAN WATER TECH COMPANIES ARE MAKING A SPLASH

October 22, 2019

The 2019 Imagine H2O Asia startup cohort is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs tackling the region’s water challenges

 

Like clean air, water is a precious resource that affects quality of life.

Nearly three out of every four people[1] affected by water stress globally live in Asia. Up to 2 billion people[2] throughout the region will face severe water scarcity by 2050. Countries in the ASEAN bloc are on the frontlines, with Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia facing water shortages with an increasing frequency.

Coupled with a rising demand for water, factors such as environmental pollution, infrastructure constraints, and climate change pose new risks for Southeast Asia’s water future.

It is clear that countries in the region must prioritise water innovation and develop efficient, affordable ways to manage water before it is too late.

Fortunately, governments would not have to do this alone. A new generation of startups has emerged to tackle threats by boosting water supply, reducing pollution and building climate resilience in Southeast Asia.  

 

A unique time for water startups

Water startups are tapping into a global US$600 billion dollar market[3]. The number of water startups vying for a piece of the pie has increased significantly compared to ten years ago, but many often run into issues when trying to establish or scale their operations and raise financing.

The arrival of Imagine H2O, a water innovation accelerator, in Southeast Asia provides these founders with the connections, resources, and end-to-end support they need to grow their startups.

Imagine H2O, in partnership with Enterprise Singapore and others, began thinking how they could build a new global hub for Southeast Asia’s water industry. Bolstered from the positive reception they received at the Singapore Week of Innovation and TeCHnology (SWITCH) 2018[4], the organisation launched Imagine H2O Asia in Singapore in 2019.

When asked about the decision to launch in Singapore, Rodney Chapin, a member of Imagine H2O Asia’s Advisory Council, explains: “For the world’s major water utilities, Singapore’s Public Utilities Board is considered the de facto standard to emulate—when you make changes in Singapore, other countries will take notice.”

Indeed, Singapore has demonstrated good governance through forward-thinking policies and a firm commitment to cutting-edge technologies. Additionally, because of the friendly laws, programmes, and support designed to help startup scale effectively, Singapore is considered one of Asia’s leading startup hubs.  

This enabling environment, combined with regional connectivity and a deep bench of industry experts, culminate in an ecosystem that is well placed to support the global demand for innovation.

 

Deep tech applications create new solutions for stubborn water issues

The water industry is a fertile ground that stands to benefit greatly from novel technologies that provide deeper insight and visibility into how resources are managed.

 

 

“We see water security in Southeast Asia threatened by a range of issues from continued migration to low-lying cities to high volumes of untreated wastewater discharged into rivers,” says Nimesh Modak, the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Imagine H2O. “These interrelated challenges spell new opportunities for entrepreneurial solutions globally, particularly those that leverage data and analytics to improve real-time decision making.”

Today, water startups are tackling four main issues: low water efficiency, low-quality delivery systems, poor water quality and poor wastewater management.

 

1. Water efficiency

Across Southeast Asia, estimates suggest up to 30% of clean water is lost in the distribution system due to leaks and aging pipes.

Leaking pipes prevent clean, filtered water from getting to the people who need it, which can be devastating to companies and the communities they serve.

Visenti, a Singapore-based company acquired by Xylem in 2016, has developed a suite of analytics products for smart management of water networks. Municipal customers can access tools that monitor and predict pipe failure. They are able to estimate water loss at the same time.

Opportunities also exist for industrial users to help conserve water. Pani Energy has developed a cloud-based operational intelligence platform that can help plant managers reduce chemical and energy use, thereby treating more water for less.

 

2. Access and delivery of drinking water

Many communities in Southeast Asia still lack safely managed drinking water services and sanitation. In cases where communities do have access to a well or reservoir, trips there can be incredibly punishing, taking up to six hours each day[5].

 

 

Drinkwell, an Imagine H2O startup that came in fourth place at SLINGSHOT 2018, has adapted its arsenic and fluoride-removing technology into an end-to-end treatment and delivery system for urban communities in Bangladesh and India. The company has now deployed over 100 water ATM booths, which operates as a service in close partnership with local utilities. 

According to Chapin, water solutions do not always have to be online platforms. “Although digital solutions are appealing for many reasons, simpler alternatives are often more accessible – primarily due to lower costs.”

One such example of a startup going “back to the basics” is Wateroam, a Singaporean startup that has reached over 35,000 people in rural and disaster-stricken communities. Their innovative filtration system is portable and does not run on electricity—it uses a manual pump mechanism—which means it can deliver safe drinking water virtually anywhere.

 

3. Water quality

Concerns about water quality are mounting as industrial developments, agricultural runoffs and population growth threaten limited freshwater supplies.   

This calls for the need for improved monitoring of water networks. Singapore-based Environsens is tackling the discharge of unwanted contaminants. Their IOT-enabled, real-time toxicity sensor has been deployed across Singapore for early detection of heavy metals in the city’s sewer networks.

 

 

As other countries in the region face strict discharge standards as well, Veracet provides a DNA mapping and diagnostics platform that can help cities trace the sources of microbial contamination from a single water test.

 

 

On the other hand, contaminant removal is equally important. Puraffinity has engineered a fully recyclable material that removes micropollutants like PFAS, a contaminant found in range of products from firefighting foam to non-stick pans.

Water quality is also compromised after flooding events. Stormharvester’s smart drainage and control solution utilises machine learning and rainfall prediction tools to help cities take action in order to prevent sewer overflows.

 

4. Wastewater management

Lastly, untreated wastewater poses a serious risk to ecosystems and communities around the world. According to the UN, 80% of wastewater globally is discharged without treatment[6].

Harmful algal blooms caused by excessive phosphorus and other contaminants can threaten the ecosystems that many coastal communities across Southeast Asia depend upon.

MicroHAOPs provides a cost-effective, low-footprint filtration technology that can remove phosphorus ten times faster at one-fourth the cost of competing alternatives. Eko Gea provides a novel waste-to-water treatment solution that can eliminate organic waste and reduce the treatment costs for businesses in the food and beverage industry.   

Wastewater treatment infrastructure across the region will also benefit from improved monitoring and maintenance of systems. A Singapore-based startup, SpaceAge Labs, utilises inexpensive, low-power wireless IoT sensors to help utilities monitor the health of remote water assets in real-time.

 

A bright future for water technology startups  

 

 

Solving worldwide water issues is not an easy mission. Yet, the support from government agencies, ecosystems players, and accelerators provide invaluable resources to these startups developing their products and business models.

Chapin is especially optimistic about the future of water tech in Southeast Asia. “This is an exciting time for entrepreneurial innovations to take root in the region.  I’m optimistic about their role in solving critical challenges while creating opportunities within the region’s innovative economy,” he says.

 

 

Southeast Asian water startups are developing incredibly diverse products and services for their markets. Interested in hearing more from these startups? The seven startups from Imagine H2O Asia’s 2019 cohort will be featured at this year’s SFF x SWITCH exhibition—join us in November to discover the newest water innovations in the market.

 

[1] https://www.unwater.org/water-facts/scarcity/

[2] https://www.iiasa.ac.at/web/home/resources/publications/options/Is_Asia_facing_a_coming_water_crisis_.html

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/heatherclancy/2014/01/22/9-startups-tapping-the-600-billion-cleantech-water-sector/#445954d97356

[4] https://www.wateronline.com/doc/drinking-water-innovation-startups-respond-urban-drinking-water-deadline-0001

[5] https://water.org/our-impact/indonesia/

[6] https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/water/