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Water tech accelerator draws national attention

Pipeline and Hamilton launch incubator.

Rahul Bawa

Lawson, executive director of The Hamilton Mill, and Antony Seppi, The Hamilton Mill's operations director.


Surrounded by the waters of the Ohio, Great Miami, Little Miami and Licking rivers, as well as the Mill, Muddy and Five Mile creeks, Cincinnati sits atop the trillion-gallon Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer. We Cincinnatians use 48 billion gallons of water a year to brush our teeth, water our yards and make our beer. And throughout the Tri-State, hundreds of organizations, companies and technologies are quietly at work on water conservation and purity.
 
Pipeline H2O — a new water technology accelerator program — and Confluence, a water technology innovation cluster, are drawing a national and international spotlight to those assets while working to attract new water-focused innovators and businesses to the region.
 
“Cincinnati is the birthplace of water research,” says Antony Seppi, director of operations at Hamilton Mill.
 
Over a century ago, Cincinnati opened a rapid sand filtration plant, only the second of its kind in the United States. The federal government took note, and in 1913, the United States Public Health Service established a Field Investigation Station in Cincinnati to oversee the first federally funded research project studying the relationship between water-borne diseases in streams and drinking water, which led to another on wastewater treatment. The study influenced the U.S. Public Health Service to introduce safe drinking water standards and to establish maximum contaminant levels.
 
Other companies and utilities also got into the water research field. With 80 percent of their products containing or relying on water, Procter & Gamble was one of the early and ongoing participants, conducting research and developing technologies related to water.
 
“The Greater Cincinnati region has more water patents per capita than any other region in the country,” says Melinda Kruyer, executive director of Confluence. “There is an unsurpassed expertise in water technology here. Very seldom have I been at a conference in the U.S., Israel, Canada, wherever, where there hasn’t been someone who studied or researched in Cincinnati.”
 
Created in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency took over Cincinnati’s Field Investigation Station. Today, their 22-acre complex is the second largest EPA research and development facility in the country. In fact, the EPA tested out its water security plan in the aftermath of 9/11 at the Greater Cincinnati Water Works.
 
The region’s water assets and long tradition of water innovation and research led the EPA and Small Business Administration to designate the region a water technology and innovation cluster in 2011, establishing Confluence as the third water cluster in the country. The cluster includes the Dayton and Cincinnati metro regions, Northern Kentucky and Southeastern Indiana.
 
“Water assets dictate if you’re a cluster, but very often those assets are siloed so one of the key benefits of Confluence is to connect the different players within the cluster, to broker those relationships and bring people together,” Kruyer says. “Our regional strengths will draw businesses here.”
 
With 250 water-related companies in the region, and plans to attract more, Confluence is working to remove barriers and expedite approval processes by crafting a multi-jurisdiction agreement between Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
 
Confluence and its regional partners have worked to bring the International Ultraviolet Association symposium to Cincinnati on Nov. 9. This is the first time the conference will be held in the U.S., and it will bring together top experts from the EPA, utilities and universities, working with advanced ultraviolet technology to purify drinking water.
 
Earlier this year, Confluence established the Regional Utility Network to provide a platform for utility representatives to meet and discuss the challenges they face. Confluence hosted a reverse pitch event in July where the utilities defined their problems, established the specifications and restrictions they are working with, and asked for solutions from an audience of vendors, entrepreneurs, developers, manufacturers and students.
 
Confluence is accepting abstracts outlining solutions to those challenges through October. A committee will review and select proposals to present at the Confluence Tech Showcase on Dec. 6. The reverse pitches are available from Confluence.
 
“New challenges are coming at an unrelenting pace and it is so important to identify these challenges, solve these problems and get the solutions commercialized and to the market,” Kruyer says. “Water issues are an economic opportunity and the water tech sector is ripe for disruptive technology.”
 
Pipeline H2O, the region’s first water technology accelerator program, expects to identify and nurture some of those solutions.
 
The project will be based at Hamilton Mill, home to a clean tech and advanced manufacturing incubator program, in partnership with Village Capital, the EPA, regional utilities and municipalities, area universities, Confluence and Cintrifuse.
 
The program is accepting applications through Nov. 11, and the cohort will begin work in February.
 
“Water scarcity and quality are definitely pieces of the program,” Seppi says, noting there are also infrastructure issues to consider.
 
Pipeline H2O is also looking for water reuse and recycling technologies, as well as monitoring and metering water usage technologies.
 
“Waste water is another huge issue,” Seppi says. “Utilities spend billions of dollars on cleaning water.”

He’s hoping to find innovative ways to save energy, clean water more efficiently and use data and analytics to make better decisions about water — as well as consider consumer market innovations such as water bottle stations and smart device connectivity via the internet of things, or IoT.
 
Through the collaborative partnership, Pipeline H2O hopes to attract applicants from local resources, but also nationally and internationally.
 
Program participants will be able to leverage Hamilton Mill’s “City as Lab” relationship with the City of Hamilton to develop and test their products.
 
“Our startups will need access to customers,” Seppi says. “We can call the city or utility and within a few weeks have our startup embedded in a department to test out their concept, get market validation, run tests and numbers. All the utilities throughout the region will potentially be able to test these ideas, products and solutions.”
 
Area universities and the EPA test beds will also be critical to the companies coming in to participate in Pipeline H20.
 
At the end of the program, the demo day will be held at the WEX Global Summit. Unlike other accelerators, the two projects that will receive funding will be chosen by the cohort, not outside judges or investors.
 
“Village Capital has this unique model,” Seppi says. “The participating startups will be judging each other throughout the program using 20 criteria in six categories: team structure, product, finances, validation, scalability and return on investment. Their evaluations will decide who receives funding.
 
“We are excited to get the program off the ground and show off Southwest Ohio as a center for water research technology.”
 
The water researchers entering Pipeline H2O, and attracted to the region by Confluence, are building on a century-long tradition of water technology that dramatically reduced the scale of typhoid epidemics and pollution in our rivers, provided safe drinking water to soldiers in Afghanistan and generated electricity from river currents. There is every reason to believe that the birthplace of water research is also the future of water innovation.
 

Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter is a jack-of-all-trades with a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums and nonprofit organizations. She's a bit obsessed with the built environment and irregularly shares her musings on architecture, urban planning and city life on Facebook and Twitter (@StrawStickBrick).
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