Two months ago, I gave a talk in Silicon Valley on proven and emerging water technologies in the Middle East. As the population grew rapidly in the last century, the Middle East became an early adapter of new desalination solutions. To date, over 50% of the world’s reverses osmosis (RO) plants are deployed in this region.
On my flight from Israel, I remembered when I was first exposed to desalination as a child. My father, Haim Cohen, worked on the first desalination pilot plant outside the US in the 1960’s to provide drinking water in the Negev desert. Close to fifty years later, I joined a new water treatment company, Emefcy, after a first career in IT start-ups. It is fascinating to me how much the two projects have in common despite being half a century apart.
Water scarcity has always been an issue throughout the region’s history. Ancient aqueducts and networks of cisterns amazingly engineered and built by King Solomon, Nabateans and Romans are found throughout the Middle East addressing the scarcity of water with innovative solutions. Whenever we find scarcity, we also find opportunity.
There is also a correlation between water scarcity and the frequency of conflicts. The Pacific Institute has categorized events related to water in an ongoing effort to understand the connections between water resources, water systems, and international security and conflict.
I had the honor as a child to meet Professor Sidney Loeb, one of the inventors of RO. He came in 1968 from the University of California, Los Angeles on a United Nations mission to teach the new RO technology to the Israelis. My father was one of them, and he joined Professor Loeb’s team. They built and ran the first RO desalination plant out of the US (picture below - courtesy of Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research).
The pilot desalinated brackish water and provided drinking water to the Negev desert where scarcity of water was extreme at the time. With a grant provided by the Israeli government –- the Venture Capital model did not exist then -- a two year pilot project was deployed in Kibutz Yotvata north of Eilat.
I loved the many opportunities I had, waking up very early in the morning, skipping school, joining my father on a three hour ride down to the pilot plant. I helped him and his team cleaning the long RO pipes, taking water samples and watching the technicians in the lab.
It was a fascinating phenomenon to see brackish water entering the system on one end and, as if by magic, drink the cold water coming out the other end (picture right - courtesy of Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research). I was very aware of the scarcity of water growing up. I recall taking very short showers and closing the faucet while brushing teeth. Who even thought of a car wash!
I used today’s “VC tools” to evaluate the Yotvata “start-up” project. The project had a viable team with strong leadership, a huge market opportunity because of water scarcity, and a clear value proposition with unique technology advantages. In 1970 the Yotvata pilot provided 150 m3 per day of fresh water.
Over the years the production has grown to the point whereby, in 2013, five RO desalination plants in Israel will supply 500 million cubic meters a year. This represents roughly 70% of the annual domestic water consumption. By 2020 almost 100% of the domestic water consumption will be supplied from desalinated water.
In addition, Israel reuses 70% of its wastewater, way ahead of Spain with 13% and other countries. Although costs of desalination are coming down quickly --$ 0.45 to $0.8 per m3 for large RO seawater desalination plants –- recycling wastewater remains a big problem. It is expensive and it consumes a lot of power, about 2% of the global power generation capacity.
When I met Eytan Levy and Ronen Shechter, the founders of Emefcy, for the first time, I realized I was facing an opportunity to help make our world a better place, very much the same way my father had when meeting Prof. Loeb for the first time. Emefcy is a next-generation wastewater treatment company that uses organic content in wastewater as source of energy to treat it.
The first technology Emefcy is bringing to market uses microbial fuel cell technology to produce electricity (picture above - courtesy of Emefcy). Rather than consuming electricity, the Electrogenic Bio Reactor (EBR) technology treats industrial wastewater and produces electricity as by-product. It is ideal for treating wastewater with a high concentration of organic substance, in the Food & Beverage and Pharmaceutical industries for example.
EBR is a disruptive technology that is being introduced to a very conservative wastewater industry. For the first time it is possible to consider a wastewater treatment plant as a profit center rather than a cost center. It means that, for example, a food processing corporation not only can profit from its products but also can profit from the wastewater it generates!
The second technology that Emefcy is bringing to market addresses the mass market of municipal wastewater treatment plants (MWTP). The Spiral Aerobic Bio-Reactor (SABRE) technology treats municipal wastewater with virtually zero energy. It is ideal for treating wastewater with a low concentration of organic substance, which is the case for municipal wastewater.
SABRE opens new possibilities for emerging markets that lack the energy infrastructure to support the buildup of power-intensive MWTP. The modularity of SABRE offers design flexibility and reduces the capital expenditure as “you build as you grow” (picture right - courtesy of Emefcy).
Because of the massive size of the MWTP market globally, any slight incremental improvement in energy efficiency could have a massive impact. Offering a bioreactor that virtually consumes zero energy, lowers the power consumption of a MWTP by 95% and reduces its operational cost by 30-40% every year.
The potential contribution of Emefcy’s wastewater treatment solutions to the environment could be as great as the contribution of the RO to the water industry. Wastewater treatment consumes 80,000 MW every year.
After 20 years of business and marketing experience gained in different Israeli startups, I decided to make a career shift. I joined Emefcy and moved from the Telecommunications and IT industries to the renewable energy and water industries. Beyond the technology advantages and the market opportunity, I saw the formation of a strong team led by a common passion. As I personally witnessed and lived during the evolution of RO throughout the years, I get a sense of “déjà vu” while actively turning Emefcy’s vision to reality.
Ely Cohen is Vice President for Marketing at Emefcy.