Californians hear a lot about the lessons they can learn from other areas that have coped with water scarcity, like Israel’s development of desalination or how Australia handled its Millennial Drought, which lasted more than a decade.
But not all water issues come down to scarcity. And that’s why looking north to Canada could also provide some inspiration when it comes to technologies to treat water (and ways to save energy in the process), tools for finding and fixing leaks, faster processes for testing water and software for analyzing important water data.
Earlier this month, a delegation from Ontario visited Southern California to showcase Canadian companies working in the water field and to continue collaboration with like-minded researchers in the U.S. Jon Grant, manager for research with WaterTAP, was along for the trip. WaterTAP is a nonprofit accelerator for water technology companies in Ontario. Grant recently spoke to Water Deeply about what Canadians and Californians can learn from each other when developing water technologies.
Water Deeply: What prompted your delegation to visit California?
Jon Grant: There has been a lot of collaboration between Canadian companies and Southern California companies on developing innovative solutions to work with municipalities in both places. Building on that, the Canadian government wanted to showcase the best of the best technologies and introduce them to potential collaborators on the research, implementation and partnership sides.
Water Deeply: Where did you visit?
Grant: We visited San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles and met with utilities, companies and researchers. We met with one of the leading global technology evaluators and scouts to find out what’s on top of mind for them.
Water Deeply: What companies from Ontario were you showcasing?
Grant: We were really there to showcase what we have and learn about local issues. We’re not going to solve everything; we’re looking for solution companies as well.
We’re not a technology company, we’re an incubator and accelerator, and some of the companies we showcased were an innovative groundwater replenishment system that incorporated a number of types of membranes, including some from Canada, and a polishing step with UV treatment from a Canadian company.
Water Deeply: What are the most important water issues in Ontario?
Grant: Like many parts of the world, we have hundred-year-old pipes and aging infrastructure, so it’s difficult to assess what we have and the condition they are in. That’s led to a lot of innovative technology companies figuring out leak detection and condition assessments.
We also have various types of pollutants in our water, and we’ve had to become efficient in using energy to treat the water and then move it from one place to another so it can get to the people who need it.
The bulk of Ontario’s population is on the Great Lakes, and it was fairly polluted in the 1940s, 50s and 60s because of industrial activity. We had to get really good at cleaning our water. Toronto was using a process called super chlorination in the 60s – they were one of the first plants to use it.
A lot of technology that spun out of that has led to innovation around treating water. ZENON was created out of McMaster University by a professor there and became a leader in reverse osmosis membrane technology and really revolutionized how we treat water. It was purchased in 2006 by GE to form the backbone of GE Water. The reason it was so innovative was it treated the water very well and with a 30 percent energy savings.
Around 2000, we had an issue in Walkerton, about two hours outside of Toronto, where they found E.coli in the water, and seven people died and thousands more were harmed. A lot of policy regulation came out of that, and also innovative technologies. As a direct result of that, one company developed a “real-time” E.coli test that takes 18 hours instead of 72 hours in the lab.
We’ve had our issues and that’s where opportunity comes from. That’s why it seems that this drought is also a great chance for California to become super efficient in water use.
Water Deeply: Were there certain places you visited in California that you found informative or inspiring?
Jon Grant: Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System was one. From what they were saying, it’s the most innovative plant of its kind in the world and I believe them. It is spick and span, and the process and treatment train they had developed was very innovative. The way they had presented it and sold the project to the public is great – it got buy-in from everyone. It’s showing how they can fight saltwater intrusion and replenish groundwater resources.
These types of processes are something we can bring into Ontario. I found it to be quite innovative in the way they were combining a bunch of different types of technologies – plus the water tasted great. We don’t reuse water as much in Ontario. We do have one large municipality that has no direct access to the Great Lakes or any lakes and they use groundwater and have to be efficient. There is a lot we can learn from what’s happening there in Orange County.
Water Deeply: And what can Californians learn from your work in Ontario?
Grant: We have some really cool optimized processes. Some of the companies like Aquatic Informatics has cutting edge software for understanding what is going on in the system. Other companies are helping with network infrastructure. Where that is implemented well they are finding good results. One of the biggest losses of water is through the network system. If we can save water that is getting out of the plant and not getting into people’s homes, that’s saves a ton of water. It saves the cost to treat it and the electricity to pump and move it.
Water Deeply: As an incubator, how to do help developing companies?
Grant: It depends on the size of company and the type of the company. We’re like a part-time coach, part-time cheerleader and part-time psychiatrist. We’re there to give them honest feedback in terms of who to target, how to target and to work with them on pitch decks in the early stages for fundraising or to support the pilots. Our goal is usually to have a pilot in Ontario – win at home so you can win abroad.
We also work a lot with them on collaborating with researchers and companies abroad. Most companies are looking for partners abroad. We work quite closely with the EPA’s water cluster initiative, working with them to support their companies entering our markets and to help our companies get to their markets.
Water Deeply: What new technologies or companies do you find most exciting right now?
Grant: Lots, depending on the stage. A lot of people say investing in the water sector is very difficult because it takes a long time. But the further away you from actually treating potable drinking water, the faster you can grow.
The data analytics companies and the sensor companies are really interesting. On the sensor side, a company called Real Tech, it – in real time – monitors what’s in your water, and they found that can really help with not only water quality issues in municipal systems, but also for industrial systems it can help optimize processes and save a lot of money.
Another company called MANTECH has had a lot of success in their real-time COD [chemical oxygen demand] monitoring. They took the time from two hours to 15 minutes to get a detection. I think one of the case studies showed they saved a pulp and paper mill $10,000 a day.
Of the analytics companies we are seeing, there is a company called WatrHub, they are a Microsoft and an Apple guy who realized that water was an issue and they wanted to take their computer programming skills to bring that bear.
All these big data companies are really exciting – we are going to be able to understand more effectively how we can solve water and that’s really the goal – the end user is the water, we want to keep that clean. We want to have enough of that, so that it can be used by farmers, industry, human beings.