Massachusetts: The Global Cluster of Water Innovation?

10/9/12

The worldwide demand for water is accelerating and shows no signs of abating. How will this demand be satisfied? This question was explored in depth last month at a meeting of the New England chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs, and the answer may lie right here in Massachusetts.

It turns out that exports are key. While the economics do not favor sending tankers full of water to foreign locales, the solution lies in innovation, specifically, by creating technologies and approaches to sourcing and managing water in new ways, and selling these goods and services to markets around the world that need them.

One of our state’s best-kept secrets is that Massachusetts already has an enormous water industry that serves global markets. Our water cluster includes outstanding graduate-degree programs (MIT, Tufts, UMass, and others); thousands of employees in engineering firms which design facilities for water-poor locales in Texas, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia (CDM Smith, AECOM, others); and products firms that make membranes, valves, and command and control systems (Watts, Koch, Xylem Analytics, Siemens, GE, others). And we have dozens of startups that attract capital and win accolades in competitions such as the MIT 100k, Imagine H20, and MassChallenge (Cambrian Innovation, Oasys Water, Resolute Marine Energy, others). Some of our innovations have already achieved huge market acceptance, such as the sensor activated faucet from Sloan Valve, and the first commercial desalination system from GE, and the company it acquired, Ionics.

The global demand for water is increasing due to population growth, and even more so, demand for agricultural products and goods that contribute to quality of life, which take a lot of water to produce. It is apparent that shrinking fresh water supplies won’t provide the needed H2O. But newer technologies for water purification, reclamation, desalination, and management are already providing the increased supply. This insatiable need plays into our state’s strength in innovation. The Bay state is innovator to the world for life sciences, IT, clean energy and other sectors. We already have all the components of the value chain in water for Massachusetts for us to become the global innovation leader in this $522B industry.

When Governor Deval Patrick went to Israel for a high-profile trade mission in March 2011, our water industry was praised for its depth and breadth. But we also learned we can do a better job promoting ourselves to the world. This is our golden opportunity—to convene our industry locally and to reach out to other geographies with strong water innovation sectors. Like the Commonwealth’s other leading industries, we are well-positioned to become the world’s water innovation cluster, with Massachusetts at the center of a global free flow of ideas, talent, and capital, bringing solutions to the world’s water needs.

There’s still work to be done until Massachusetts can boast of being the epicenter of global water innovation, but from the perspective of revenue growth, job creation, and sheer social impact, the possibility is most appealing.

David Goodtree is the Co-Organizer of the Symposium on Water Innovation in Massachusetts (SWIM) and Co-Chair of the upcoming Massachusetts Water Innovation Mission to Israel, and a featured presenter at TEDxBoston ‘12. Berl Hartman is the co-founder and a director of the New England chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs. Follow @

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