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Water-stressed Singapore bets on new technology to secure supply

A host of start-ups discover alternative ways to purify water.

Singaporean water treatment company Hyflux aims to sell the city-state's biggest desalination plant, Tuaspring. (Photo provided by Singapore Public Utilities Board)
Singapore is preparing to seize control of the country's biggest desalination plant, Tuaspring, on May 17. (Photo provided by Singapore Public Utilities Board)

SINGAPORE -- André Stolz calls his company's feature product a "super-absorbent" sponge: a carbon-fiber filter made from recycled paper and cotton that can suck oil or industrial contaminants out of water.

The company, EcoWorth, a start-up spun out of the  Nanyang Technology University, three years ago, has so far raised around $1 million through grants, angel investments and bootstrapping to help commercialize its 'carbon fiber aerogel' technology.

After a series of successful trials, the company is looking for fresh funding to take the technology to scale and tap into an expected surge in demand for new water purification technology as Hyflux, the operator of the city-state's biggest desalination plant, teeters on the brink of liquidation.

The Singapore government announced last week that it will have to seize control of Singapore's largest desalination plant on May 17 in order to secure the country's water supply.

The demise of the once high-flying homegrown company, as well as a spat over prices with Malaysia which supplies around 40 per cent of Singapore's water needs, has brought Singapore's perennial water shortage problems into sharp focus.

"Singapore wants to be independent from Malaysia and have independent water management," said Stolz, who hopes that this will lead to the government putting more pressure on businesses to conserve and treat their wastewater, which will in turn create opportunities for startups like EcoWorth. "We are seeing that the legislation is tightening and the [Public Utilities Board] is pushing back for industries to install their own wastewater treatment. That is the market for us to go into.''

A bugbear for Singapore leaders since it broke away from Malaysia in 1965 -- state-sponsored television adverts and radio jingles urge citizens to save water -- the government has invested heavily in a "four national taps" strategy.

With two-thirds of the island designated as water catchment areas, rainwater-- the first of the "taps" -- is collected in 17 reservoirs. That reserve is supplemented by the second tap, wastewater, which is treated in one of the country's five "NEWater" plants.

But the last two taps -- desalinated seawater and water imported from Malaysia -- are now looking somewhat creaky.

Following his surprise election win last May, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has a notoriously prickly relationship with Singapore, branded as "morally wrong" a 1962 treaty under which Malaysia agreed to pipe up to 1.1 billion liters of water per day across the border at less than $0.002 per 1,000 liters.

At the same time, the cost of running Singapore's water system has increased almost threefold since the turn of the century, according to the Public Utilities Board, which is responsible for managing the water supply, and those costs are now being passed on to consumers. In its 2017 budget, the government announced a 30 percent hike in water bills, the first such increase since 2000.

"What Singapore doesn't want is to stop growing, development-wise and economically, because they don't have water," Cecilia Tortajada, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told Nikkei.

The need to find new ways to control domestic water resources and to reduce treatment costs has meant that Singapore and its water utility are uniquely open to innovation, Tortajada said, adding that the PUB currently runs incubators, innovation competitions, and also sponsors academic research in a constant search for new ideas.

In response, industry is rising to meet that demand.

Blue Ocean Memtech, another NUS spinout, is working to commercialize a new nanofiltration membrane that could, according to founder Fu Feng-Jiang, significantly reduce the cost of treating water. Fu hopes that the technology could be commerialized within a few years.

Having already applied for funding to develop another new type of membrane, and with his eye on several other technologies, Fu said many people were starting to realize that the water business has a bright future in Singapore. "In my mind I have a few technologies I want to commercialize," he said.

Others are using the country's developing water technology ecosystem as a springboard to build solutions for entirely different markets.

Wateroam, founded by three university undergraduates in 2014, has built highly portable water filters, operated by a hand pump, which can supply clean water to remote communities and disaster zones.

The company's technology has already been deployed in more than 20 countries, and used by relief organisations responding to humanitarian crises across Asia. It's also found a small but relatively lucrative market among "preppers" -- mostly Americans worried about the apocalypse.

"We grew up in a relatively developed city where we open our taps every day and get clean drinking water," co-founder Lim Chong Tee said. "We felt that Singapore being an innovation hub we should really do more, we should help more people."

Startup entrepreneurs point out that there are still gaps in the ecosystem, notably the availability of finance to take innovations from pilot to full commercial scale. But that may change as the challenges of water scarcity in Singapore and around the world become more acute.

"Water, relative to its utility, is unbelievably cheap," said Tom Ferguson, vice president of programming at Imagine H2O, a US water-tech accelerator that recently opened a program in Asia.

The "existential" challenge in places like Singapore, Ferguson said, changes that calculation. "Singapore has an opportunity to really build an industry out of this."

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