Water treatment Membranes Europe Paul O'Callaghan

“Successful water innovations sometimes have little impact”

Paul O'Callaghan
Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Just under 10 percent of water technology innovations have a successful application and even then the impact is regularly disappointing, says Paul O’Callaghan. He talks about a Water Technology Adoption Model (WaTA), presented in his recent PhD.

Innovation in the water sector is one of Paul O’Callaghan’s favourite topics. So naturally, the founder and director of BlueTech Research wanted to gain his PhD on this topic.

A chance came along when Cees Buisman, professor of Biological Recycling Technology at Wageningen University & Research and scientific director of Wetsus, suggested O’Callaghan start his PhD as an external candidate at Wageningen.

This resulted in the thesis ‘Dynamics of Water: Insights into the rate of adoption, diffusion and success of innovative water technologies globally’ and PhD obtained at the end of 2020.

As well as discussing what makes certain innovations successful, he presented the Water Technology Adoption Model (WaTA), which can be used to monitor the spread of innovations. The following in an extract from an interview published in H2O magazine.

What did you want to achieve with your research?
“My goal was to create a framework for innovations in the field of water technology, because that was still missing. The WaTA can serve as a starting point for scientists, water technologists and investors and provides a common language. This can prevent people from making the same mistakes over and over again when developing and introducing new technologies. Because I think that's a terrible thing to see.”

What is the current state of affairs with regard to water innovations?
“Many innovations are aimed at improving what we do now. Such an innovation is called a 'sustaining innovation'. This way of innovation is used in many things in life, including cars and TVs. But with other innovations something completely new is being invented, for example drone technology. Global challenges such as climate change, drought, floods and too many nutrients in the water require major changes. For that we really need to do something completely new. Good examples of radical innovations from the recent past are the membrane bioreactor and UV LED light for disinfection.”

How do these innovations differ from reinforcing innovations?
“They are really completely different. Many scientists think that a 'sustaining innovation' such as a bacterium or membrane is the solution to water problems. The psychologist Maslow, famous for his needs pyramid, devised the 'law of the hammer' for this. If you have a hammer, you will only see nails that you can hit.

“Sometimes, however, you have to do something completely different in the form of a decentralized, circular or nature-based purification system.”

Sometimes, however, you have to do something completely different in the form of a decentralized, circular or nature-based purification system. Such a system requires a combination of existing and completely new technologies. Often companies outside the water sector come up with such innovations, because they have no good reason to continue as usual.

For example, the membrane biorector was introduced in the 1990s by start-ups Memcor and Zenon. Other examples of companies that came up with real innovations, are Paques and Hydraloop. Why doesn’t a large company usually do this? In English, we have the phrase 'turkeys don't vote for Christmas'. Established companies ignore radical innovations until after ten to fifteen years they realise that they have to worry.”

You cite a recent survey by BlueTech Research, which shows that only 9 percent of developed technologies have been successfully awarded. Is the water sector performing poorly or does this also apply to other sectors?

“The percentage is lower than that of some other sectors. While the probability of failure is comparable across the board, a relatively large number of companies in the water sector are located in no man's land. Their innovations are not dead, but not much is happening either.

You also have to ask yourself: what is success? Professors Cees Buisman and Mark van Loosdrecht may consider it a great success if nine per cent of the water innovations result in a pilot or demonstration. But for an investor group such as SKion Water, it is terrible to spend an amount of 15 million euros on an innovation that does not make it. A successful innovation really has to pay off to make up for all failures. I call it 'unicorn' in my research. The other categories are 'lion' and 'horse'. Also successful, but not at the same level.”

“Technological development is a race against time. Money is running out, patents are ending, competitors are also inventing something new, regulations are changing.”

In your research you looked at the duration of an innovation. For example, there is a clear distinction between a value-driven innovation and a crisis or needs-driven innovation; the first is applied by pioneers and early adopters after an average of more than twelve years, the second after just six and a half years. How important is speed for an innovation?
“Someone asked me during my defense of promoting that it is always good to do things quickly. Let me put it this way: you always want to find out the truth as quickly as possible. Technological development is a race against time. Money is running out, patents are ending, competitors are also inventing something new, regulations are changing. After a few years, innovations go through a 'valley of death' or 'chasm', where it is difficult to remain enthusiastic. You have to get through that as quickly as possible. An innovation often gets stuck in this phase and is sometimes picked up later by another company.”

What are the conditions for success for developing an innovation?
“The main thing is: make sure that the scientific side is correct. And furthermore: have a clear view of what innovation you are working on, because that determines your strategy. With a value-driven innovation you train for the marathon and you have to be patient.

In an innovation developed due to a crisis, you train for the sprint. It differs greatly between the two as to what kind of investor you need, how you put your team together and what time frame is realistic. Successful companies know what they are doing. This is the key to success for me.

I see so many companies that really have to figure that out for themselves. They often change their mind after two or three years, because they realize that the customer is not waiting for their own idea. For example, the 'unicorn' of the membrane aerated biofilm reactor (MABR) market, initially used in conventional water treatment. After a few years, it was decided to focus on the biological removal of nutrients. That is a much more logical application.”

Were you still surprised by certain results during your research?
"Yes. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how little impact some of the innovations considered highly successful have. This applies, among other things, to thermal hydrolysis and struvite recovery. I am shocked at how small their contribution actually is. It is particularly difficult to make a real impact, because the water sector is very fragmented in most countries and there are hundreds of thousands of water treatment plants in the world. In addition, it is almost impossible in our sector to convince someone to do something essentially different. That only happens if it really has to be done.”

“It is almost impossible in our sector to convince someone to do something different. That only happens if it really has to be done.”

How do you assess the contribution of Dutch water technology companies?
“The Dutch technology sector is very lively. For example, the Nereda technology is a great innovation that has been developed very quickly and effectively. Nijhuis and Paques are world leaders and NX Filtration is also doing very well. However, this company also first had to find out what the market is for hollow fiber nanofiltration membranes.”

One of your conclusions concerns the sixth sustainable development goal of access to clean drinking water and sanitation. In your view, low-end disruptive innovation is needed in the industrial sector and water service providers in developing countries, but is currently not being met. How do you envision this?

“About 2.5 billion people have no access to clean drinking water and sanitation. This is, of course, a humanitarian issue, but also a huge market opportunity. The sustainable development goal cannot be achieved by charity; far too much money is needed for that. The point is that people can contribute and companies find a new way to provide them with good and affordable services.”

Finally, you are the initiator of the Netflix documentary, Brave Blue World, released in October. Narrated by Liam Neeson and featuring actor Matt Damon among others, they optimistically highlight the water innovations of the future. What have been the reactions to the documentary?
“In countries such as the Netherlands and Singapore, many ordinary people are aware of the water challenges, but that is certainly not the case everywhere. We wanted to achieve that with the documentary. The response is generally very positive. This has opened the eyes of many adults and children. That even applies to my mother-in-law. The film is shown a lot in schools and companies.”

- This interview was written by Hans Klip and was originally published in Dutch trade magazine, H2O magazine.

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