Water is an enormous issue around the globe -- for drinking, farming and industry.  

There is a looming water crisis facing everyone on Earth as populations rise, pollution increases and climate and weather patterns change.  There is already a water crisis in many developing nations and in some not-so-developing regions, like Australia and California.  The stats for "embedded" or "virtual" water are sobering -- for example, the production of 1 kilogram of beef requires the use of 15,500 liters of water (see WaterFootprint.org).

And water is inextricably linked to energy -- California uses an extraordinary amount of power to move water around the state. In fact, a fifth of the electricity used in California is intertwined with water. So is 30 percent of the natural gas, according to the California Energy Commission. Most of that power is actually used to heat water for hot showers and clean hospital equipment, but around five percent to six percent of all of California's energy gets consumed simply by moving water.

Venture Capital Investment in Water

Business growth opportunities in the water market seem obvious. The water market is:

    • Huge and expanding
    • In a crisis that cries out for innovation and efficiency
    • Deeply enmeshed with energy usage
    • In urgent need of a variety of new technology approaches

But VC lore and conventional wisdom has it that you can't make money in water; it's too long a design cycle, too regulated, and too fragmented a market. The main players in water are large conglomerates like General Electric, Veolia, Siemens -- and they dominate the market.

Flying in the face of this theory is the fact that Energy Recovery, a water desalination company, went public a few years ago.  In fact, the Voltea investment covered below is just one indication that VCs are indeed investing in water across a variety of water sectors.  And there has been a robust M&A scene for water companies -- it just doesn't get a lot of press.

Here's a quick list of of the more than $150 million in water investments in 2009. Note that while Israel has its share of water startups, U.S. VCs seem to be waking up to the water market, as well. Watch out for a surge in water investments this year and next.  It's still a small percentage of total VC in greentech -- but it's not negligible.

VC Investments in the Water Sector (2009)

VC in water 2009


Some Venture Capitalist Views on Water

Susan Preston at CalCEF is "looking hard" for an investment "at the intersection of energy and water."

Peter Nieh, a partner at VC investment firm Lightspeed Venture Partners said via email, ”Water is an alluring market because the need is clearly there and the opportunity is large.  [There is] some great technology out there. The issue for us is that economically attractive distribution is hard to achieve because the market is so fragmented.”
“[I] definitely agree that water is a challenging sector... and as such, it's sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of cleantech investments,” observed Steve Vassallo of Foundation Capital.  “That said, we have invested in this area and are actively looking for opportunities to invest in capital efficient businesses that address the needs of commercial, industrial, and agricultural users of water.”  PurFresh was one of Foundation’s first cleantech investments. Purfresh has an ozone purification system that many bottled water vendors use to sterilize their bottles.
Will Coleman of VC firm Mohr Davidow Ventures is also looking carefully at water deals and states. “As for water, yes, we have had an interest in water for quite a while, but it has always been hard to identity venture opportunities in the space.  The market is huge. The "water" market in the U.S. alone is over $100 billion annually, but a significant portion of that is in earthworks and pipes. When you slice it a little finer you find that a third of the market is driven by residential, where the cost of water to the end customer is really not a driver” [emphasis mine].

Rachel Sheinbein was a water expert at Intel, dealing with the flood of wastewater produced in the fabrication of Intel’s semiconductor products.  Today, she’s at CMEA Ventures and part of the investment firm's Energy & Materials team. She vets the VC firm’s cleantech deals but has a particular thirst for water startups, and states, “I believe there’s an opportunity in water but I haven’t found the investment yet.”
Sheinbein added, “We’re good at materials and membranes,” adding, “We would look to get to market through the commercial and industrial space first, as opposed to the conservative municipal water channel.”

A Recent VC Investment in Water

Voltea, a 20-employee U.K.-based startup founded in 2006, just closed a $5.5M investment from Rabo Ventures and Pentair, a U.S. water technology company, for water desalination via capacitive deionization.  Initial investment for Voltea came from Unilever Ventures.

Capacitive deionization (CD) is an electrical process that combines oppositely charged electrodes with anionic and cationic selective membranes.  When salt water flows into the cell between an electric field, the ions move through the selective membranes to the oppositely charged electrodes and desalinated water leaves the cell.

When the surface of both electrodes is covered with ions, the electrodes are cleaned by reversing the electrode polarity. The ions are pushed from the electrodes and are trapped between the membranes.  The concentrated brine that forms between both membranes can then be removed from the cell.  When the polarity of the electrodes is reset to normal, the cell is ready for use again.

The predominant technologies used to desalinate water are reverse osmosis (RO) and electrodialysis reversal (EDR), and they both tend to be costly, environmentally unfriendly, and energy-intensive processes that produce large amounts of wastewater.

CD would seem to most closely resemble EDR, but Voltea claims that CD has a higher recovery water rate, requires less maintenance and pre-treatment, and is not as sensitive to scaling and fouling.  The company also claims that CD requires much less energy than RO and fewer chemicals than either RO or EDR.

Current applications for the Voltea technology are in cooling towers, water softening, and desalinating brackish groundwater.

Profiles of a Few Other Water Companies

NanoH2O, a well-funded water startup, is commercializing a new membrane material for reverse osmosis based on technology developed by UCLA's Eric Hoek.  

"It all comes down to the performance of the membrane," claims Jeff Green, the startup's CEO. "A more productive membrane allows less energy to be used or provides higher throughput." 

A higher-performance, more permeable membrane allows more fresh water to cross the barrier with less pressure from a pump -- a pump that needs to be driven by an energy source, be it natural gas, diesel, or coal.  The high pressure pump consumes 35 percent to 60 percent of the process' energy budget.  According to the company, municipal and industrial plants optimized for NanoH2O’s membranes can expect up to a 20 percent reduction in energy consumption, a 70 percent increase in water production, or a 40 percent smaller plant footprint.

According to Green, seawater desalination comprises about two-thirds of the desalination market.  Another 20 percent is for desalination of brackish water and the remainder is for desalination of wastewater streams.

The industry standard membrane module is a cylinder 8 inches in diameter and 40 inches long.  A flat sheet of membrane is spiral wound in the cylinder.   Under pressure, the desalinated water moves through the membrane into a tube on the inside, while the waste stream or brine stream remains on the outside.  A typical pressure vessel contains a number of the membrane modules. 

Green said, "We will be able to produce the entire product, from fabricating the membrane to the membrane module itself."  The goal is to make a membrane module that fits into RO systems with an identical size and shape to the existing product. 

Traditional membranes have been made from a polyamide material for decades, but they had a propensity for fouling. “Fouling can severely degrade the productivity of the process or cause a complete shut-down of a system,” said Green.

"If you want to move this forward, you need a better membrane.  We have added nano-particles to the synthesis of the membrane -- it is not a coating; it is a nanocomposite. That allows these systems to have much lower operating pressures or much higher throughput."  And that translates to less energy consumption or greater productivity.  The firm claims that NanoH2O's technology is the first materials breakthrough in RO membranes since the 1970s.

Initial VC funding for NanoH2O was a $5 million Round A from Khosla Ventures, followed by $20 million from Oak Investment Partners and Khosla Ventures.   That funding has taken them from an academic research project to the cusp of manufacturing a commercial product.

The goal now is to scale-up manufacturing.  The firm has 26,000 square feet of manufacturing infrastructure in the Los Angeles area and looks to come to market with a commercial product this year. 

Other firms working on membranes for water applications include the industrial plumbing giant Danfoss, while Novozymes and a startup called Aquaporin are doing similar work. The challenge, said Aquaporin CEO Peter Jensen to Greentech Media, is making the membrane durable.

Desalitech's pilot testing has purified Mediterranean saltwater, using a Closed-Circuit Desalination saltwater reverse osmosis method (SWRO-CCD).

Using common components, without energy recovery, running a high-pressure pump at 81 percent mean efficiency and circulation pump at 37.5 percent mean efficiency, the pilot achieved 48 percent recovery at 2.05 to 2.40 kWh per cubic meter of fresh water. For comparison, Perth's desalination plant using Energy Recovery from ERI achieves 43 percent recovery at 2.32 kWh/m3.

Desalitech aims to increase the mean efficiency of the off-the-shelf, high-pressure pump to 88 percent, to provide recovery at 1.75 to 1.95 kWh/m3 on Mediterranean saltwater. The same pumps used on ocean water could produce equal recovery at 1.5 to 1.7 kWh/m3.

Desalitech's implementation reduces the cost of powering desalination processes. It also decreases capital expenditures. Nadav Efraty, CEO of Desalitech, said, "This technology is reducing energy consumption by up to 50 percent when we utilize about twice the membranes, reduces energy by about 10 percent to 15 percent when we use only 40 percent of the membranes compared to a conventional plant, or reduces energy about 30 percent when we utilize the same amount of membranes, but in this mode, since we don't utilize any form of energy recovery, we still see a reduction in capital expenditures"  (reporting on Desalitech was provided by Galen Sanford).

Microvi Biotech, led by CEO Fatemeh Shirazi, a fifteen-year industry veteran, believes it has a solution to one of our water problems -- pollution from nitrogenous compounds stemming from natural or agricultural sources.  Almost any wastewater has a nitrogenous element.  “Nitrogenous compounds in drinking water continue to pose a serious health risk, yet traditional treatments are too expensive. They also create byproducts that degrade the environment and are difficult to remove," said Shirazi.  High levels of nitrogenous compounds in drinking water can cause a deficiency of oxygen in organ tissue and have been linked to a dangerous condition in infants called methemoglobinemia, also known as "blue baby syndrome."

The problem is global and the United States alone spends $4.3 billion a year to remove nitrogenous compounds and phosphorous from water.

One of the problems with traditional water treatment is that you end up with a secondary waste stream of concentrated pollutants.  What happens to that toxic waste stream?

Microvi's process encloses microbes inside a semi-permeable membrane, using strains that can assimilate pollutants like chlorinated hydrocarbons, phenols, perchlorate, nitrogenous compounds and pharmaceuticals.  Shirazi said, "Microvi tackles every pollutant in the water industry."

The startup claims that its technology yields water that meets drinking standards with no waste stream, in contrast to the sludge created by conventional wastewater processing.

According to the CEO, the system is easy to handle and operate, and once you set it up, it's almost maintenance-free.  The firm is targeting waste waster in industrial and municipal markets, as well as surface water, ground water and water in the oil and gas industry.

"The technology is fundamentally different than anything on the market," claims the CEO.  Microvi's bioreactors employ microorganisms that have the ability to utilize the pollutants as a food source.  The billions of organisms in the reactor "have been trained" and the conditions in the reactor tuned so that there is no waste stream, according to Shirazi, who adds that "other folks have tried but have not been successful" in this endeavor.  The organisms are not genetically modified, nor are they pathogenic, were they to escape the bioreactor. The CEO was not willing to identify the microbes doing the work.

Shirazi's claims aside, others are aiming at similar goals. Emefcy has created a biological fuel cell that cleans water and generates electricity.

Microvi raised more than $1.25 million in initial funding, and the technology received about $1.8 million in government funding from the National Institute of Health.


There are a “scary number” of pollutants in our water supply, said Gayle Pergamit, the CEO and founder of Agua Via, an early stage membrane developer.  These pollutants include “natural” poisons like boron and arsenic, nitrogenous wastes from humans and farm animals, and “other goodies” like hydrocodone and estrogen disruptors. “There can be any of 500,000 different interesting and entertaining chemicals in the water supply,” she said.

“Nanotechnology-based water filtration could deliver completely pure water from any source at vastly reduced energy usage and lower total costs,” added Pergamit. 

”The discouraging thing about this is that [VCs] really don’t understand that we [the U.S.] are entering an era of water scarcity [as opposed to large chunks of the rest of the world, who are already in the midst of water scarcity],” said Pergamit of AguaVia in an email. “Maybe they don’t buy the concept of climate change -- anthropogenic or otherwise. But it also means that they don’t understand aquifer exhaustion and the fact that even if there wasn’t one whit of climate change, we are still going to run out of water.”

Michael Kanellos covered water purification here and I profiled a few Israeli water startups here.  We covered Canadian water innovation here and even more water startups: APT, and water/IT play TaKaDu.

Contrary to popular belief, VC investment in water technologies is alive and well.  In fact, there's actually a pent-up investment demand for the right water technologies and entrepreneurs.