Water is one of the greatest challenges of our times, and with this week’s launch of Imagine H2O, it has become a great opportunity. Imagine H2O is a non-profit with a mission to inspire and empower people to solve water problems.
Through an annual business plan competition, Imagine H2O will address the water problems of developed economies and bring together a community of entrepreneurs, investors, water experts, academics, and caring citizens who collectively have the power to solve the water crisis. The aim is to develop the Silicon Valley for water, an ecosystem of stakeholders to the next great water innovations.
Water supply is perhaps our most pressing issue, even in the US. For example:
* The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that over 50% of America’s groundwater is polluted.
* In 2007, 40% of states suffered droughts and over 70% of states are anticipating water shortages by 2013
* Over the last 25 years, droughts have killed more Americans than any other U.S. weather disaster and have caused $150 billion in damage nationally.
* Up to $1 trillion is needed to rebuild America’s aging water infrastructure
But today less than 0.5% of early-stage investment goes toward water innovations. Imagine H2O is offering $50,000 in prizes for business plans promising the greatest breakthroughs in the efficient use of water.
“What sets this prize apart is our Incubator Program and ‚Äòecosystem’ for water leaders,” said Tamin Pechet, Imagine H2O’s Chairman and Executive Director, who co-founded the organization at Harvard Business School in 2007. “The winners will also receive thousands of dollars in business and legal support and access to a network of partners, customers and financiers to help bring their ideas to market so they can make a real difference.”
To kick-off the business plan competition, Imagine H2O hosted a water entrepreneurship workshop at UC Berkeley in collaboration with the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative (BERC) this week, which brought together water experts to discuss opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation in the sector.
So what are some opportunities for entrepreneurship?
Michael George of Sutter Securities suggested that improving utility pricing of water such that utilities have an incentive to help customers conserve is an area aching for innovation. California is making strides here, but we have a ways to go. “We are now subsidizing our most limited resource,” he explained. Another opportunity is in increasing the efficiency of water use in agriculture, where 80% of water is used.
Rachel Sheinbein, of CMEA Ventures and formerly Intel, brought both the industry and investors’ perspective to the panel. Since water is mis-priced, it is hard to get ROI from water savings. If there is no savings, why would a company care? We need corporate water champions and innovators to develop a business case for water conservation. If an innovation can save time and energy as well as water it will be a lot more marketable. She recommended entrepreneurs look to commercial and industrial applications before residential, as the channels for reaching residential customers are more difficult to navigate.
Panelist Dana Haasz from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission noted the biggest issue around measurement and accountability in water. “There is no link between programs and number, demands and goals…the lack of measurement rolls up to the high level,” she explained.
Alexis Strauss, of the EPA’s Water Division, cited the need for an integrated, cost-effective and portable system that would use solar energy to treat drinking water and deal with waste-water.
The competition’s inaugural prize will focus on water efficiency in agriculture, commercial, industrial or residential applications, such as water demand reduction, improved water use, water recycling and/or reuse. Entries will be accepted from anyone in the world beginning in September, and winners will be announced at a showcase event in early 2010. Future years’ competitions will have different prize topics addressing other critical water problems.