Finding out whether it’s feasible to introduce a brand new clean technology to the market can be a time consuming challenge. StartupJuncture asked the founders of Elemental Water Makers, introducing a desalination system that makes fresh water from salty sea water, how they went from award winning thesis project in 2012 to a fully operational product by the summer of 2015.
Fresh water is scarce and some regions in the world, especially the warmer ones, are likely to experience scarcity. Desalination of sea water is a possible solution. Reverse osmosis is the most used technique for making fresh water from salt water. However, this process is extremely energy-intensive.
With limited fossil fuel supplies and increasing climate awareness, renewables could be the solution. The problem is: reverse osmosis is designed for a continuous supply of energy, whereas renewable energy supply fluctuates. Elemental Water Makers developed a technology that solves this problem.
In 2012, the innovation was proven by a successful field pilot in Indonesia. Feasibility studies were done to find out where the systems could be implemented. Months of (field) research, talking, and different valuable learning experiences followed for the young company from Delft.
What was the first step after the technological innovation had been proven?
Sid Vollebregt, co-founder of Elemental Water Makers: “First, we had to identify our potential customers. We came to the conclusion that we would focus on three different groups: resorts, municipalities and remote communities. However, to be able to do business with foreign governments, we first needed to build a portfolio. Therefore we decided to focus on the resort branch initially.
Resorts often have high expenses for fresh water. By studying possible locations with abundant resorts, we identified islands as the ideal market. Most islands don’t have many fresh water resources. Moreover, islands often cope with high prices for fossil fuels (and thus electricity), because of the high transportation costs to these remote areas. For these reasons, we see a demand for our technological innovation at these locations.”
“Every ‘no’ brings you a step closer to a ‘yes’.”
How did the introduction of the technology to the resort branch go?
“In the beginning, we had a very valuable experience. We found a potential customer on Lanzarote and were far in the negotiation process. All went well, until we didn’t get a permit for the production of fresh water from the Spanish government. It turned out that they had given permission to a private fresh water supplier, and no other parties were allowed to enter the market.
Luckily, soon after this, we found a new customer on the Virgin Islands. The permits are in place and at this moment, all the materials to build the installation are ready to be shipped from the Netherlands to the Virgin Island. We expect the installation to be fully operational in summer this year.”
What are your experiences with assessing feasibility in the clean tech market?
“We are not in an easy market, the water sector is conservative and risk-averse. We are active in areas thousands of kilometres away and need to take a plane to be able to talk to the stakeholders. These factors make processes more slow and expensive. Moreover, within island communities you need to know the right people, gain trust and build a reputation before you can really start your plans. You have to maintain focus and have a long breath to be able to penetrate this market. It is important to have a strong vision and not let disappointments get you down, every ‘no’ brings you a step closer to a ‘yes’.”
Some tips from Elemental Water Makers:
- Do research to identify customer groups
- Be aware of local laws and regulations, arrange permits if necessary
- Build trust and reputation within your consuming market
Photo provided by Elemental Water Makers