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What is water worth to your business?

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Expert panel suggests H20 is about to become a much sharper focus of cleantech funding.

NEW YORK -- I heard some rather astonishing statistics while I was covering the Cleantech New York Forum including this zinger from Israeli venture capitalist Assaf Barnea, CEO of Kinrot Ventures: Less than 5 percent of all the money going into clean technologies is focused on technologies to help with global water issues. "This is a major, major issue," he says.

Barnea's remark came during a panel titled, "Water: Where is the Capital Going to Come From?" His opinion was shared by others on the panel and also reinforced by a quick glance at the new Global Cleantech 100 list of the most promising private companies in cleantech. Out of that 100, there are only 8 from the water and wastewater sector, down from 11 companies in 2009. Here are the companies that DID make the list, in alphabetical order:

  • Aqwise, a maker of a bio-film wastewater treatment process
  • Danfoss, a developer of desalination membrane technology
  • Emefcy, a company that has come up with microbial fuel cells for wastewaste
  • NanoH20, another desalination membrane player
  • Oasys Water, focused on wastewater treatment and energy generation
  • Ostara, which recovers nutrients from municipal waste water
  • TaKaDu, developer of a wastewater infrastructure monitoring platform
  • WaterHealth, a provider of water purification technology

Companies and municipalities around the world are starting to ask more questions about the state of our water supply, and what shortages might mean both from a human sustainability and economic sustainability standpoint. The sustainability programs of major beverage companies such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola pivot on their investments in technologies for decreasing their freshwater consumption, while making the most of greywater or wastewater. Water is even the subject of the Oct. 18 Newsweek cover, explored in an article called "Liquid Asset" that discusses the potential impact posed by privatization of the world's water supply.

According to some estimates mentioned during this week's Cleantech New York Forum, investments in the water sector could reach $60 billion over the next three decades.

Jeff Fulgham, who is the chief sustainability officer and Ecoimagination leader for GE Power & Water, suggests that even though many venture capitalist haven't taken a plunge into water technology, 5 forces will come together to inspire funding:

  1. The need to squeeze more revenue out of existing systems. Depending on whose numbers you believe, something like 44 percent of the water managed by many utilities is non-revenue-generating. In many cases, it flows out the back door in terms of leaks in aging infrastructure.
  2. A move to view wastewater as an asset rather than a liability.
  3. increased corporate funding. As I mentioned earlier, you will see many big businesses with food, agricultural and beverage interests seek to sure they can sustain future growth by using water better.
  4. Inspiring research developments, notably in the areas of desalination, wastewater treatment, smart grid technologies for water, and even more industrial concerns such as technologies that can help reduce the size of water treatment plants to a quarter of their existing footprint.
  5. Rising water demand in the industrial sector.

The thing that could hold water technology progress back is pretty simple: a past history of conservatism when it comes to investments at the municipal level. People in the United States, in particular, tend to think of water as cheap and ubiquituous. Globally speaking, this perception needs to be changed.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure