Water treatment Digital Solutions Europe

Scaling Together: Key Ingredients to Successful Corporate-Startup Partnerships

Tuesday, 27 February 2024

Sivan Zamir shares what she believes to be the key ingredients for scaling and growth – partnerships.

The bottleneck isn’t technology

Ever wondered what propels successful startups to scale rapidly in the water sector? Last year, I shared some insights on Aquatech Online about my learnings as a start-up founder in the water sector, and tips on how to overcome the infamous ‘piloting valley of death’

Today, I’m here to share what I believe to be the key ingredient for scaling and growth – partnerships.

Three years into steering Xylem’s innovation and venture team, Xylem Innovation Labs, I've come to a few realisations about how corporate-start-up collaborations can revolutionise the water sector: 

  1. The technologies we need to tackle climate change are out there or in the works
  2. The bottleneck isn't technology; it's the commercialisation that gets these innovations to market to make a real impact
  3. To break through the commercialisation barrier, we need partnerships that are driven by the urgency of customer challenges, embracing radical transparency, and de-risking customer adoption.

The relay race of technology innovation

Now, let’s break it down. According to the Diffusion of Innovation theory, there's a relay race from innovators and early adopters (making up about 15 per cent of the population) to the early-to-late majority and laggards (the remaining 85 per cent).

“15 years for breakthrough technology to hit the mainstream doesn’t exactly scream ‘urgent’ to me.”

In the water sector, this relay can take 12-15 years according to the ‘Dynamics of Water Innovation.’ For crisis-driven tech, it could be less; for value-driven tech, perhaps more. 

We preach urgency in tackling climate change, with water at its core (climate change is typically experienced as too little or too much water).

Now, I don’t know about you – but given what we know about the criticality of climate change and water scarcity – 15 years for breakthrough technology to hit the mainstream doesn’t exactly scream ‘urgent’ to me.

Covid innovation pace

Picture this: what if we treated water scarcity like we did Covid? In the face of a global pandemic, a coalition of innovators (healthcare, medical companies, insurance, government) identified and agreed on the threat that Covid posed to the world.

“The Diffusion of Innovation was one of the fastest ever seen.”

They worked around the clock, collaborating to develop and distribute the vaccine within a year to early-adopters, including healthcare workers and vulnerable populations. Within another year, the vaccine reached the late majority.

The American Journal of Infection Control concluded that the Diffusion of Innovation was one of the fastest ever seen, partly because the general population considered early-adopter healthcare workers to be “trusted advisors and influencers”.

A shared sense of urgency

Bring that back to water – supporting the majority in creating a water-secure future goes beyond technology. The journey will require us, as leaders in the water sector, to collaborate not only with our peers, but collectively across all stakeholder groups and with water users globally.

By reshaping our partnership paradigm through a shared sense of urgency, transparency, and risk, we can accelerate the adoption of transformative solutions.

Let's not just be innovators; let's be collaborators. As the proverb goes, “to go far, we must go together.”

- Sivan Zamir is the vice president of Xylem Innovation Labs.