By Daniel Noll
Omni Water Solutions, Inc., is an emerging technology company that builds and deploys modular water treatment solutions. Based in Austin, Texas, Omni Water is well known locally due to its affiliation with the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) and the application of its technology to the treatment of effluent from the hydraulic fracturing exploration of shale gas. I sat down with CEO Warren Sumner to ask him some questions about the Omni Water business model and their approach to sustainability.
TriplePundit: How has your company grown and what skills are you hiring?
Warren Summer: When I joined the company there were seven of us — founders who had put money into the business — and that was 18 months ago. We’re at 24 now, 30 by the end of the year and we’ll be up near 40 by the middle of 2013. We recruit knowledge workers for the software and water analytics side of our business — from places like Stanford, MIT, and UT — and the other half are in manufacturing. About half of the company is specialty welders and electricians who put our systems together.
3p: Omni Water operates technologies for industrial re-use (mostly fracking) and also drinking water. What’s a bigger market for you?
WS: In the short run it’s definitely frack or produced water, which amounts to about 130 billion gallons of fresh water used by the industry per year. We can reduce the volume of disposed water by 80 percent. In the long run it will be drinking water, which is global issue. Making use of sources that are currently unusable is the real opportunity.
3p: A lot of the need for drinking water is in places and communities without financial resources. Is Omni Water finding business opportunity in those areas?
By Daniel Noll
Annie Leonard is a filmmaker and sustainability advocate most famous for her animated film project The Story of Stuff, which chronicles the lifecycle of consumer goods from creation, distribution, consumption to disposal. In her closing keynote at SXSW Eco, she gave a rousing speech that brought many in the audience to tears as she rallied the audience to believe again in the power of community and government to create change.
Leonard began her talk by painting a bleak picture of the path and future direction our planet is taking. Almost every important trend, she argues — from income inequality, to environmental health, hunger, and disease, is going in the wrong direction. Moreover, degradation of our physical environment is correlating with social problems like isolation, depression, and loneliness. Leonard’s bottom line is that our economy is unsustainable. We’re wasting too much stuff and bumping up against the ecological limits that our planet is capable of supporting. One metric of planetary overuse is a statistic put out by the Global Footprint Network, which estimates that we are currently consuming 1.5 times the amount of goods the earth is capable of supporting. Whether the figure is 1.5 or 1.4 doesn’t matter, Leonard argues, anything over one is a serious issue.
Leonard matches this bleak landscape with a bullish characterization of technological and social solutions that hold the promise of rescuing us from this path. Much of the harm that comes as a byproduct of chemical and other manufactured goods are unintended harms. Our awareness of these harms is leading scientists — in chemistry for example — to develop new compounds and materials that achieve the same objectives of current solutions in ways that mitigate problems like toxic overexposure.
During day 1 of SXSW Eco I sat in on a keynote speech by Lance Hosey, Chief Sustainability Officer for the global architecture firm RTKL. His talk focused on the concepts outlined in his recent book — The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design. In the book, Hosey argues that beauty is inherent to sustainability, for design is as important as process and materials. Aesthetics of the built environment don’t just make things look better, but rather enhance the usability and productivity of the things we buy and the buildings we inhabit.
The underlying question Hosey seeks to answer is whether sustainability changes the face of design — specifically, in regard to architecture — or just its content. To make his point Hosey compared the results of a Vanity Fair survey on significant achievements in architecture with his own survey of leading architects on the most significant achievements in green architecture. The results were striking — only two architects populated both lists, leading Hosey to conclude that the standards we have for excellence in sustainable building and excellence in design are very different. So is well-designed green architecture an oxymoron?
By Daniel Noll
SXSWEco convened last Wednesday and the conference program (printed using wind power, vegetable-based inks, and a deforestation offset program) boasted an impressive depth and diversity of content. Yet before the conference began, I found myself wondering if any, amongst a crowded hotel full of advocacy groups, venture capitalists, futurists, biologists, artists, and even students, would succeed in uniting the conference participants under a common message.
Here are five themes that emerged during SXSW Eco 2012:
For anyone who has attended a South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, certain adjectives come to mind—inspirational, spontaneous, and fun being three common descriptors. For two weeks each March, the gravitational centers of music, film, and emerging technology shift over Austin, Texas, as the intellectual leadership of each industry gather from around the world. The result is something akin to an experiment in controlled chaos.
“What we hear with SXSW each year over and over is about serendipitous meetings you couldn’t have anywhere else,” said Chris Sonnier who is the Program Coordinator for SXSW Eco, a new conference set to launch its second iteration this October 3-5. According to Sonnier, the ethos of the sustainability movement is ingrained in the DNA of the SXSW employees, and that is what has led the company to create a conference that caters to the sustainability community.
As most of this site’s readership will know, sustainability has emerged over the past two decades as one of the most influential and rapidly-evolving social and political movements. Whole-systems and lifecycle analysis have become pervasive in everything from corporate supply chain management to urban planning. Part of the impetus for the diffusion of sustainable thinking is the growing consciousness regarding human impact on the environment—a trend captured eloquently by Dr. Raymond Orbach from UT-Austin’s Energy Institute. An arguably more important part has been an explosion of innovation in sustainability-oriented technologies that drive down firms’ cost of doing business while simultaneously yielding environmental and health benefits.
The strength—but also challenge—of the sustainability movement stems from the diversity of its constituents. It’s in bridging the gaps between historically-disconnected communities that Sonnier sees a role for SXSW Eco.