Viewpoint: Overcoming death by 1000 pilots
Digital Solutions Utilities Europe

Viewpoint: Overcoming death by 1000 pilots

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

How can the water sector get past the ‘Piloting Valley of Death’? By the entire value chain working together, according to Sivan Zamir, vice president of Xylem Innovation Labs.

An unenthusiastic response

Embracing new technology doesn’t always come easily. 

In a previous life, I found this out the hard way. As a construction manager on a $400 million commercial project in the early 2000s, I was sure I had found a way to skyrocket engineer productivity with an innovative low-cost software program. 

The response was less than enthusiastic: I was told it seemed too risky to rely on a computer. 

That ‘no’ struck a nerve and led me to a career focused on new technology and business model adoption in traditionally conservative industries. 

This has taken me from founding IoT and digital twin start-ups to leading Xylem Innovation Labs, the innovation partnerships team of global water technology company Xylem.

The piloting valley of death

Fast forward to 2023. The water innovation ecosystem is bursting at the seams with promising start-ups. Venture capital and government funding are pouring into the sector at an unprecedented rate. 

As the quantity and quality of innovation mount, the bottleneck is not technology. While trust in technology has moved on significantly since the early 2000s, today the bottleneck is the pace of commercial adoption. 

The timescale for widespread implementation of new technology in the water sector is estimated at 12 to 16 years, a runway far too long for most start-up companies. With few possessing enough capital to bridge the gap, solutions that could have a significant impact instead often die in the ‘piloting valley of death’. 

The challenges water entrepreneurs face are ones many of us know well: a regulatory-driven, fragmented, risk-averse, financially constrained market where each customer wants to pilot technology repeatedly without committing to full-scale deployment. There is little incentive when the stakes are high, and the status quo keeps the lights on.

Getting past this pain point can’t be just someone else’s problem. The world urgently needs new solutions to mitigate climate change, water scarcity, and affordability.

Innovation as a team sport

So how do we move quicker? One of the biggest lessons I have learned as an entrepreneur is the value of collaboration. 

It is not only down to the entrepreneurs. The entire sector has a role in developing and commercialising new technologies – from researchers, regulators, and customers to investors, consultants, manufacturers, and distributors. Everyone reading this is part of a value chain that has a place in accelerating adoption.

We must challenge ourselves to remove the bottleneck by changing how we operate internally and partner externally. 

One example is Trial Reservoir, a private revolving loan fund started by global water consultant Isle Utilities and co-sponsored by Xylem. It aims to bring together consultants, customers, and technologists to overcome capital and administrative barriers, accelerating the transition from piloting to commercial adoption.

Let’s demonstrate that positive outcomes are possible when we see each other less as competitors and more as collaborators. Where there are actionable opportunities for radical collaboration, reach out to each other. 

If we continue to innovate and iterate, we can overcome death by a thousand pilots and achieve water security, resilience, and prosperity – together.