Water treatment Europe Membranes Paul O'Callaghan

For water innovation to thrive, we need leaders – Paul O’Callaghan

Paul O'Callaghan
Wednesday, 13 October 2021

For water innovation to thrive, we need real leadership, according to Paul O'Callaghan, Founder & CEO of BlueTech Research. He talks to Aquatech Online about his recent PhD.

Is water really slow to innovate?

The water sector is “slow to innovate”. The water sector “is very conservative”. It takes “a long time” to scale water technology innovations.

Sound familiar?

These common assumptions about the water sector continue to echo but do they still remain true? Where’s the modern evidence to suggest that water, in comparison to other industries, is slow to innovate?

That’s one question that pushed Paul O’Callaghan, founder & CEO of BlueTech Research, to investigate.

With a thesis entitled ‘Dynamics of Water: Insights into the rate of adoption, diffusion and success of innovative water technologies globally’, he obtained a PhD at the end of 2020 as an external candidate at Wageningen University.

"People mean different things when they say the word innovation."

Under the supervision of Cees Buisman, professor of Biological Recycling Technology at Wageningen University & Research and scientific director of Wetsus, O’Callaghan also sought to find out a common language that could be used around innovation.

In an interview with Aquatech Online, O’Callaghan said: “People mean different things when they say that word [innovation],” said O’Callaghan.

“A venture capital investor might mean something different when they say the term disruptive innovation. Whereas a utility, when they say they need innovation, they may need something that will reduce the energy costs and get them to carbon neutrality. If you’re a technology provider, you might have a different perspective as well.”

A summary of the video interview can be found below:

The need for [patient] leaders

The BlueTech Research CEO said in his career that he's witnessed technologies such as Membrane Bioreactors (MBR) go "from a whisper, to a billion-dollar market" but that it does take time. He also stressed the importance of patient leadership.

“Leadership came up again and again – it's a very important component. Because of the timelines, you need to have a belief and sustained commitment that will sustain you through a number of years because you’re not going to be in and out in three years,” he added.

He references Dr Andrew Benedek, who founded Zenon Environmental to develop cost-effective membrane technologies for recycling wastewater and sold his company to General Electric in 2006.

"One of the biggest obstacles towards continued investment in the water sector is unrealistic expectations."

One of the outcomes from O’Callaghan’s thesis is the Water Technology Adoption Model (WaTA), which can be used to monitor the spread of innovations.

Moving ahead, he added: “One of the biggest obstacles towards continued investment in the water sector is unrealistic expectations…once you can understand where you sit, you can make a better decision on what’s the right strategy, and what’s the right investment, the timelines and risk associated with it.

“I hope that the work will create a dialogue. People are now picking up on these ideas, and that was the hope all along."

- Paul O’Callaghan will be speaking in the Circular Economy Business Models session in the Aquatech Innovation Forum on November 1. For more information, visit here.

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