Addressing Barriers to Innovation

At the 16th IWA Leading Edge Conference on Water and Wastewater Technologies (LET) held in Edinburgh, I was particularly gratified by an IWA workshop co-organised by Paul O’Callaghan, BlueTech Research and Jonathan Clement, Nanostone, on the challenges of bringing technologies to the market. As an urban planner and environmental economist, one of my research goals is to identify policy solutions that can empower technological innovators and reduce barriers to innovation so that we can address the urgent and severe water issues confronting the world to create and develop new technologies to solve pressing issues in the water sector. One of these solutions that I believe is significant is the creation of technology clusters, also referred to as “innovation ecosystems,” as they can provide the right incentives and empower innovators to create new technologies to address the issues we need to solve now.

Why is this important? The water sector is widely perceived to be slow to innovate and some researchers have even gone so far as to claim that there may be a deficit of technological innovation. This notion has been reinforced by findings that point out that the number of patents filed and overall R&D investments in the water sector, common indicators for innovative activity, are far below figures for other environmental fields. Furthermore, statistics on water-related startups are pretty discouraging. To the dismay of many aspiring entrepreneurs, the process of bringing technology to market in the water sector (measured as the time between pilot testing begins to commercialisation) has historically taken between 12 to 14 years. These perceptions, claims, and statistics are particularly troubling given the urgency and severity of the continuously expanding set of issues that threaten water management.

Innovators in the water sector face significant hurdles in their efforts to bring water-related technologies to the market. Experienced innovators and entrepreneurs at the conference emphasized that the most significant of these hurdles is the availability of private funding. Given the long time horizon and the need for sustained funds required to test and scale water-related technologies for commercial markets, innovators often run out of money.

Also, there is a lack of communication among innovators and area experts across sectors. Without knowledge sharing, new technologies may fail for simple yet avoidable reasons. Common mistakes include establishing plants far from the intended consumer base, marketing the technology at the wrong time, or creating a technology that does not address end-user needs. Many ground-breaking technologies get overlooked by not framing the technology in the context of the urgent problem it is meant to address.  A sobering fact: of the many reasons that water technology start-ups fail, the actual technology failing to work isn’t one.

At the conference, there were several discussions regarding the importance of creating “innovation ecosystems,” urging innovators, universities, governments, and utilities to interact with each other. Innovation is a result of learning and knowledge exchange in interactive networks that tend to cluster regionally. Therefore, cross-sectoral relationships foster communication and coordination that can translate into supportive policy and regulatory frameworks, improved opportunities to validate and verify technologies, and additional funding opportunities.

The Water-Test Network (WTN), an innovation ecosystem in North-West Europe, hosted a networking event to encourage start-ups to take advantage of the opportunities they provide. In addition to funding, the WTN provides innovators with access to facilities and equipment to help test and scale their technologies under real-world conditions. Many of the facilities have extra sets of assets in place that can be adapted to the needs of the particular technology being tested. Furthermore, firms that get support from the WTN are allowed to test their technologies at any of the affiliated sites in an attempt to best match the technology with the “possible site for their needs, validation and commercialisation of near to market water solutions.”

The workshop “Bringing Leading Edge Technology to Market – the Long and Difficult Path” and WTN’s networking event were by far the most effective prelude to the conference as it had implications for each technology that I saw presented at IWA LET. We know that technologies that eventually go on to be commercially successful address specific end-user needs. As water scarcity, flooding, and pernicious micropollutants increasingly threaten the health and welfare of people all over the world, we must ensure there’s an adequate economic infrastructure that can encourage and support innovators in addressing these pressing issues. Creating innovation ecosystems and lowering barriers to bringing technologies to the market is on my mind and, as I have learned from this year’s IWA LET, I am thankfully not alone.




Ahmed Rachid El-Khattabi

Ph.D. candidate in City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Ahmed Rachid El-Khattabi is an applied economist and urban planner with methods expertise in policy-oriented quantitative research and data management. He researches issues at the intersection of economic development and environmental planning with a... Read full biography