American venture capitalists are notoriously fickle water investors.   

Recognizing that water is a rapidly expanding $400 billion global market, many investors pledge a theoretical interest in water innovations. But in practice, window shopping is the norm.  Concerned about the capital intensity of many water projects and the length of water startups' time to market and sales cycles, numerous American venture firms have made only a single water investment. As a result, many firms are not well prepared to evaluate and embrace the next great water startup. 

"If you have done just one, you don't know the 100 different pieces of the value chain and the market segment," says CMEA Capital's Rachel Sheinbein, who used to help Intel address wastewater challenges. "Something else comes in and it is totally different. It is like saying 'energy.' There are so many pieces of [the water market]." 

North of the border, in Canada, there is a lot less hesitation.   

In March, the Government of Ontario announced it would later this year introduce aggressive legislation to promote Ontario as an international leader in clean water entrepreneurship and investment. Last week, the Ontario Centre for Environmental Technology Advancement (OCETA) and XPV Capital followed up on the government's announcement with a new report. "The Water Opportunity for Ontario" draws attention to Ontario's research institutions, water regulations and standards, and water industry, including the region's "track record in creating world-class water technologies." Some examples are Zenon Environmental, a wastewater treatment firm purchased by GE, and Trojan Technologies, a leader in ultraviolet water purification purchased by Danaher Corporation.  

In 2010, Toronto-based XPV Capital will soon close a $150 million fund dedicated exclusively to stage-agnostic investments in emerging water companies. To put the fund in perspective, consider that in 2009 venture capitalists invested about $150 million in water innovation -- total.  (Ontario is also making a big push in solar and has attracted big-name partner Samsung.)

"The rate of adoption is accelerating in water. The primary [reason] is that the value proposition of water technology has shifted from a regulatory value proposition," said XPV Capital's David Henderson. "A lot of the technology in the 1980s and 1990s were about bad bugs in drinking water. What is happening now is more economic drivers -- the fact that a third of a municipality's energy bill is moving and treating water. That's a big bill that you can attack with technology." 

XPV Capital is particularly bullish on investment opportunities in four broad water areas: demand destruction, wastewater to product, water reuse, and infrastructure renewal.  Said Henderson:

  • "Demand structuring is all about how we reduce the demand for energy, water, chemicals, [and] other inputs in mission critical water processes without changing the output of the processes."  
  • "Water reuse is taking [wastewater from] industrial, municipal, [and] commercial, buildings, uses and instead of treating it to be discharged back into the environment, treat[ing] it to be discharged for other applications."
  • "Infrastructure renewal technology can extend the life, expand the capacity, or increase the productivity of [water] infrastructure - a big area for North America."

But even water enthusiasts such as Henderson and Sheinbein recognize the sector's challenges.  

"There are definitely elements in the [water] industry where venture capital doesn't make sense, but there are segments in the industry where it does make sense. A technology that can drop the energy equation in a desalination process by fifty to seventy percent is very financeable under any venture capital model," said Henderson. 

Trouble is, most of the recent advances, at least in desalination, have been incremental in nature.  

"I've seen membranes [and] I've seen changes in distillation.  But they are not really breakthroughs," said Sheinbein. "They use too much energy or, from a venture capital perspective, they need to build $100 million plants because they only make sense on that scale. I'm looking for things that are not iterative on what I learned in my chemical engineering classes." 

Saltworks: Thermo-Ionic Desalination

In Vancouver, startup Saltworks Technologies claims exactly such a disruptive innovation and value proposition. 

"Saltworks has developed an energy-efficient desalination technology that reduces electricity costs by up to 80 percent," said Malcolm Man, Saltworks' Vice President of Business Development.   

To appreciate Saltworks' approach, begin with a refresher course in chemical engineering. Today, desalination takes place primarily through distillation or reverse osmosis.  During distillation, water is heated and vaporized to remove salt, then condensed to produce fresh water. During reverse osmosis, pressure gradients drive water through a semi-permeable membrane through which salt cannot pass.  Both approaches are energy-intensive and thus expensive. 

To reduce energy costs, NanoH20 is developing a more efficient membrane for reverse osmosis and Oasys Water is using ammonia salts to encourage forward osmosis, i.e. the water is drawn through the membrane due not by pressure but due to its natural attraction to an extremely salty solution on the other side.

Saltworks is promoting a different approach, using ion bridges to create an electrical circuit that manipulates salt. Similarly, researchers at MIT and in Korea recently announced their successful small-scale testing of desalination based on passage of water through ion-selective materials.  

To understand Saltworks' thermo-ionic desalination method, recall that salt is composed of negatively charged chlorine ions and positively charged sodium ions. Saltworks' process begins with four separate streams of seawater or brackish groundwater. Using either a solar thermal pond or industrial waste heat, the first stream of seawater, for example, is evaporated until its salt concentration rises from its natural 3.5 percent to more than 18 percent. This first high-salinity stream is then pumped at low pressure into Saltworks' desalting device. 

Inside the device, the first high-salinity stream is connected using ion bridges to the second and third natural seawater streams, whose salt concentrations are only 3.5 percent.  Made of polystyrene, the ion bridges have been treated so that one allows only negatively charged chlorine ions to pass (from the first stream to the second stream) and the other allows only positively charged sodium ions to pass (from the first stream to the third stream).   

The second and third streams are also connected to the fourth seawater stream. To maintain its electrical balance, the second stream pulls positively charged sodium ions from the fourth natural stream. Similarly, the third stream pulls negatively charged chlorine ions from the fourth stream.  In the process, the fourth stream is stripped of its ions and desalinated. 

"Our technology can hybridize with existing [desalination] plants," said Saltworks' Man. "For example, a reverse osmosis plant produces a high-brine concentration discharge. We use that as our fuel.  What we can do is take that fuel, recover more water from it and produce a solid salt with zero liquid discharge." 

To date, Saltworks has raised about $1.3 million and received about $2 million in government grants.  The company has a one cubic meter per day demonstration plant operating, where it extracts seawater from Vancouver harbor and produces fresh water. Skeptics wonder whether the process will work over time, can clean water to a degree necessary, and address other issues, but it's definitely an intriguing concept.

"We're looking [for] up to $10 million for our Series A continue operations [and] IP protection, deploy four mobile demonstration plants to key industrial and municipal customers, and start our manufacturing capabilities to reduce costs," said Man.  

Yoni Cohen is a JD-MBA student at the Yale Law School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.  He previously worked as a reporter for Fox Sports, among other jobs.