Water technology has historically seen only a trickle of the investment dedicated to climate technology companies. Of the $54 billion in venture capital and private equity that poured into climate in 2021, only a reported $470 million funneled to water-focused startups.
But a cadre of determined entrepreneurs hopes to turn the tide on that trend, including a number of Columbia University alumni and faculty. By helming social enterprises that demonstrate the vast potential of water technologies, these innovators are making waves and proving that water — the essence of life on Earth, after all — isn’t a niche market.
World Water Week is a movement focused on transforming global water challenges. It culminates in a conference hosted by the Stockholm International Water Institute. Ahead of this year’s event, which takes place from August 20 to 24, we spoke with three entrepreneurs about how their companies align with the theme “innovative solutions for a water-wise world.”
AdvanceH2O: Harnessing the Power of Data for Smarter Water Treatment
AdvanceH2O, which launched in 2017, develops next-generation monitoring and data informatics for water treatment systems. The startup emerged from Columbia Engineering with funding from PowerBridgeNY, a proof-of-concept center program sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
“Our goals are to predict and prevent treatment plant operational failures, regulatory fines, and environmental or health hazards by, for instance, detecting harmful pathogens including toxic chemical substances like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances [PFAS], a.k.a. ‘forever chemicals,’ in water supplies,” says Young Lee, the company’s CEO.
AdvanceH2O’s work has implications both within the United States and globally. While the company has engaged with some international treatment plants, the team is currently prioritizing pilot tests in the United States, running two full-scale tests at wastewater treatment plants in New England.
In 2018, AdvanceH2O received a grant from the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, which provides seed grants to nonprofit, for-profit, and hybrid early-stage Columbia University-affiliated social and environmental ventures. In another big win, the startup next received an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“Applying for and winning the Tamer Fund helped us realign our thinking,” says Lee. “We realized that even though we’re looking at commercial opportunities, it’s critical to understand the community perspective. Many of our customers' personnel work and live in the communities where the treatment plants are located.”
The company has developed a novel customer discovery process that involves constant input from operators and pilot testers. “We look at our customers as long-term relationships and try to put ourselves in their shoes,” he says. “Ultimately, we want to empower them so they can ask informed questions when faced with uncertainties across the entire spectrum, from regulations to product vendor relationships.”
As it continues to prove the value of clean technology, AdvanceH2O is committed to outreach and education. The company currently partners with CBS’s Small Business Consulting Program and aims to inspire both younger and older generations to dive into the world of water technology. AdvanceH2O also connects CBS students with pilot test customers and other critical stakeholders to learn about water treatment ecosystems. The initiative, which has been ongoing for the past two years, helps students learn about the technical complexities of meeting the most basic of human needs: clean water.
Folia Water: Making Clean Water Filters a Pantry Staple
Jonathan Levine (’11SEAS, ’04CC), president and co-founder of Folia Water Global, envisions a world in which his company’s paper filters are a pantry staple akin to salt, rice, or soap. “We realized that a grocery-priced water filter should be sold in every grocery store in every low-income country in the world,” he says.
Folia Water Global, a subsidiary of parent company Folia Materials, designs water purification technology to be used in developing countries. The product, made of silver-infused paper, costs about 20 cents and can filter 20 liters of water, eliminating 99.99 percent of harmful bacteria, viruses, and protozoans. It’s currently stocked in 2,500 grocery stores in Bangladesh.
Providing an affordable form of water filtration addresses a massive public health crisis: According to the World Health Organization, at least 829,000 people die globally each year due to health conditions caused by unsafe drinking water.
When Levine co-founded Folia Materials in 2016, cleantech was considered a relatively risky investment. But by aligning itself with global, trillion-dollar markets like industrial paper, industrial packaging, and consumer packaged goods, the company has successfully brought investors on board.
“There’s very little financing for water projects in low-income countries. People approach it as if it were a nonprofit endeavor,” explains Levine. “But if you look at other health-focused and hygiene products, like menstrual pads or condoms, these are commercial sectors. We believe our filters are in the same category.”
To date, Folia has received $2 million in grants from the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research program, as well as $1 million in initial pilot funding from Unilever, UKAid, and Aqua for All.
The company received a grant from the Tamer Fund for Social Ventures in 2017. And more recently, it closed a $450,000 round of funding that will enable the company to scale up operations and begin expanding to 10,000 Bangladeshi stores. Ultimately, the hope is to partner with a national distributor that could put Folia products in 400,000 stores throughout Bangladesh, and eventually expand into India, Indonesia, Kenya, and then globally.
microTERRA: Biotech with Big Ambitions
Marissa Cuevas (’17SUMA) understands that making a big impact often involves thinking small. Take the unassuming aquatic plant lemna: It’s one of the smallest flowering plants in the world, but it packs a mighty punch when it comes to combating pollutants.
Lemna, which grows on the surface of water, has incredible filtration capabilities. It can absorb excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which are common byproducts of agricultural processes that can negatively impact aquatic ecosystems. “Agricultural runoff is one of the biggest water pollutants in the world,” explains Cuevas. “Nature itself offers a solution. Plants are super-effective at finding the nutrients in water, and filtering and storing them.” Through photosynthesis, she says, plants like lemna can also transform otherwise harmful nutrients into more valuable — even edible — compounds.
Cuevas’ startup, microTERRA, cultivates lemna for both water treatment and sustainable culinary use. The company partners with farms in Mexico to grow lemna on pools of water used in farming processes like greenhouse production. Not only does the lemna help reduce harmful runoff from greenhouses, but it can also be harvested into sustainable, “functional ingredients” that provide texture, color, and flavor to food, Cuevas explains.
Such ingredients, though not nutritionally rich, are increasingly in demand for plant-based products and the broader food industry. Lemna has remarkable versatility — it can be used in dairy, dressings, processed meats and their alternatives, ice cream, baked goods, and more. The lemna microTERRA produces undergoes a rigorous process to certify purity and safety for human consumption before it’s sold to food companies.
The company has accrued a series of impressive awards in its short five years. In 2022, it was the only Mexican startup — and the only Latin American startup with a female CEO — to be selected as a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.
The company also received a grant from the Tamer Fund for Social Ventures in 2018, which assisted with critical early-stage development. “Thanks to the Tamer Fund, we’ve grown from a hopeful startup to a thriving force in the food and climate tech industry,” says Cuevas. “They didn’t just write a check; they became our mentors, providing valuable insights and opening doors to a world of connections.” The company is currently preparing for a Series A funding round.
During World Water Week, microTERRA plans to amplify its efforts by continuing to raise awareness about its mission and vision. “World Water Week is not just a one-week event for us; it’s an ongoing commitment,” says Cuevas. “Our dedication to this cause is steadfast every day of the year.”
A new study by CBS Professors Sandra C. Matz and Moran Cerf, and Northwestern University Professor Malcolm A. MacIver, tests the effectiveness of climate prediction markets in boosting support, concern, and knowledge around climate action: