We wanted to understand the water industry further, especially after Robert brought up an interesting point regarding innovation. We set out to interview Dr. Duncan Thomas from the Manchester Institute of Innovation in the University of Manchester that researches water technology and innovation policies.
From our interview, we learned a few important points about innovation in the water industry:
1. The UK’s water companies are heavily privatized. Each company in the water industry is very different and thus, our technology will have to fit with the different existing frameworks on a case-by-case basis. This will mean assessing the following criteria for each company/regional treatment facility:
-Current treatment methods
-Do they have a phosphate problem?
-Do they specialize in removing phosphate?
-What methods are they using to remove them?
-Are current methods chemical or biological?
Therefore, in order to see the feasibility of our project, a performance and cost analysis would need to be done based on these questions for each company so that we can successfully sell our technology to them.
2. Innovation in the water industry is quite hard and slow, not always because of the costs but because of the way that companies prioritize things.
a. For example, water companies will definitely prioritize reaching the standard qualifications set by the government or other national authority. Since the government does not regulate the way the companies treat their water, water companies would choose to adopt whichever technology is readily available to them. Therefore, a completely new innovation may not be appealing to them because it requires a risky investment of money and a restructure of their existing process. To convince them we would have to show a cost analysis, which proves that our technology can be cheaper in the long term than an already existing process. Rather, an innovation that increases the efficiency or solves the problem of an already existing technology within the company may be more attractive for them.
b. In addition, safety would also be the main priority of a water company. They would not want to adopt a new technology if it has possible risk of contaminating the water as it would affect thousands of people within the area. This is why water companies often act as a ‘second adopter’ and would only adopt new technology when its risks have been assessed and it has proven to work in a different place.
3. However, the reasons above may only apply to the UK, because the industry in the UK is more mature (have better technology/infrastructure already). Therefore, it would probably be better to pitch the idea in countries where there is a lack of innovative technologies for water treatment and where meeting regulatory standards is still a struggle.
4. The government’s role in water treatment is only in establishing standard regulations, but not necessarily in deciding the way to treat water.
5. Brexit is a huge uncertainty that may put off water companies from adopting new innovations. The current regulations for the water industry is the Water Framework Directive which is created by the European Commission. It is uncertain whether the new UK law will adopt the same regulations or create a new one. If they adopt the same existing regulation, not much will change. However, there is a possibility of higher standard regulations that will have to be prioritized and addressed before adopting any new technology.
In addition to these findings, Dr. Thomas also challenged us to think beyond the water industry and to come up with other business plans, such as selling our technology directly to the customers. These customers may be farmers that may appreciate our technology to take up phosphate from the rivers for fertilizers or other companies (chemical, agricultural) that treats their own waste water to save money (avoid “penalties” for untreated heavily polluted waste water).
*Interview was conducted by Owen, Adam, and Theodore*