A message to investors in new water treatment technology

Building a profitable water treatment technology business is hard, really hard. The obstacles are really too numerous to list here, but lets just say that every water is different, and while opportunities are everywhere there is no easy route to each highly distorted market.

You can realistically expect that it will take fifteen to twenty years from demonstrating a viable technology at lab scale to hitting break-even from a financial perspective. On that journey many tens of millions of dollars of investment will be required.

So why do it?

Well barriers-to-entry work both ways. Look at reverse-osmosis, a sixty-year old technology which is still unchallenged and which almost certainly has another forty years to run. So you may have a twenty year ramp-up, but a one hundred year pay-off period looks pretty good.

Also everyone knows that water is a strategically important sector and if you can achieve the holy grail of demonstrating the technical and commercial viability of a disruptive technology you can expect some pretty impressive multiples.

Finally there are a number of natural exit points in the evolution of a water technology. If you take the Lean Startup approach of proving hypotheses then you add value to the company and create an exit point each time a hypothesis is proven.

What ever you do though, don’t invest a few million dollars and expect to have J-curve growth on your hands in two years…because it won’t work and it will leave everyone in a bad place.

 

 

 

 

Industrial Treatment in Asia still exciting interest

I just got back from Singapore Water Week. Thanks to vigorous support from PUB, and their willingness to twist arms pretty hard, the water industry turn-out for water week was strong.

Interestingly though, the mood in the trade hall was relatively sombre. The major players we spoke to who depend on market growth to grow were somewhat bearish on the rest of 2012.

However new entrants are definitely seeing opportunity to take market share…particularly in industrial water treatment throughout Asia. They seem particularly interested in industrial wastewater, with strengthening environmental regulation in China and SEA forcing industrial customers to clean up their game. Everyone has their eye on Indonesia, trying to judge whether now is the time to jump into that market with both feet. In the meantime domestic EPC players continue to prosper.

In other interesting news Lanxess was pushing their new RO membrane range pretty hard, evidence of the true commoditization of polymer RO membranes for the mid-market. They seemed to have nothing much new to offer from a technology perspective…and seemed to be just hoping to leverage their resin sales network.

Mann +Hummel also had a big presence in the SIWW trade hall, with the UF products they acquired with the Singapore membrane business Ultra-Flo in 2010 on display. They have an active strategy to diversify out of automotive filtration and it will be interesting to see whether they find water as attractive a market as they hope.

With all this activity, as usual there will continue to be a huge demand for bilingual technical sales professionals in growth markets. In water the good sales guys tend to be a barometer for the relative strength of different technology businesses.

 

Brine management a major growth area

There is a great article here on the growth of the Coal Seam Gas industry in Australia. It is anticipated that 300,000 megalitres of highly saline water will be extracted every year from CSG bores in Australia, and the search for ways to manage that water continues.

This is not just about mining though. As fresh water becomes more scarce globally, inland farmers and communities around the world will increasingly turn to desalination to make use of higher and higher salinity water.

Along with inland desalination comes the question of brine management. How do you deal with all that high-salinity water? H2Otalent is already starting to see the growth of the brine management industry reflected in the positions we are recruiting for.

Watch this space.

The political after-effects of drought

Australia’s crazily stochastic rainfall is having serious political fallout, one to two years after a major east coast drought turned to catastrophic floods almost overnight. As climate change begins to replicate Australia’s climate in other continents, our lessons may be relearned by others.

Australia’s east coast states  spent something like AU$15-20b on drought mitigation infrastructure in the 2005-2010 period, including large desalination plants for every major city and a very extensive network of reuse plants and pipelines for Brisbane.

The dam water supply levels in every major city had reached critical levels in spite of severe water restrictions and in the case of Queensland, the state government had been planning for trucking water into the centre of the capital, Brisbane.

In every east coast city’s case the rain began shortly after the drought infrastructure was complete (sometime before in the case of Melbourne’s gigantic desal). Water utilities and state governments were left with huge bills for now unnecessary infrastructure.

The fun really began when people started to hear how much their water bills were going to increase to cover the cost of the capital works. Society’s collective memory is very short, and people hearing that their water bill is going to go up 15-20%+ a year for the next few years has caused a lot of political difficulty.

This has been particularly interesting in South-East Queensland, where a major restructure of the water sector for the purpose of increasing water security in the region was attempted during and after the drought. The result has been a rash of finger-pointing and political maneuvering between State and local government as both sides try to blame the other for cost increases. The fall-out could well bring down one or more local or state governments.

I think there are a few lessons here.

It is very important to avoid infrastructure lock-in if at all possible. Large scale solutions may be more efficient, but a modular and scalable response to water supply threats is likely to be less costly in the long-run. Moving early to manage potential threats before they become critical will leave more options on the table. Having a now unneccessary $3b desal plant operating on a take-or-pay contract can be  very politically awkward.

Expect people to forget their previous support for decisions made in-extremis…particularly when they get the bill.

 Don’t miss the chance to set up a more resilient system when the status-quo is threatened by a crisis…but make sure your alternative approach makes sense under both rainy and dry scenarios.

China’s desalination boom

H2Otalent anticipates a major boom in the desalination industry in China,  as demand for water increased and alternative supply options fall away. H2Otalent’s Isa Cruz attended the Qingdao Desalination Conference last month, attended by representatives from all over the world positioning for a piece of the action.

Isa Cruz at the Qingdao Desalination Conference
H2Otalent’s Isa Cruz at the Qingdao Desalination Conference

This excellent Circle of Blue report documents a proposal by a respected Chinese engineering professor to build a desalination complex that will pump water 3,400 kilometres to Inner Mongolia and provide the water supply to exploit a massive coal field.

 
While this proposal in controversial, the fact that it is being proposed at all does show how seriously China needs more water.
 
The South-to-North pipeline project, which was going to effectively take water from the Himalayas to Beijing is bogged down in construction challenges, and expected to yield less water than originally planned.
 
Desal seems like the only remaining option to stop Beijing drying out. The government agrees, with a substantial increase in desal capacity specifically stated in the latest five-year plan.
 
Desalination is also one of the more obvious niches where multinational EPC firms looking to make their mark in China can be competitive. Domestic firms have their hands full delivering less complex and risky wastewater and industrial water treatment plants, and few domestic firms have the capability to deliver a large desal plant.
 
Companies like Aqualyng and Befesa are already delivering plants.  A local JV partner will definitely be required, and non-recourse finance is now obtainable for China projects.
 
A word of warning though, local engineers with desalination experience are still thin on the ground, and in great demand so be prepared to pay top dollar for local talent. Feel free to contact Isa Cruz on isa.cruz@h2otalent.com for further information on entering the China market.