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FEATURE STORY January 20, 2022

The Water Technology Access Partnership: A Deep Dive with Nimesh Modak and Shelley McMillan

Shelley McMillan and Nimesh Modak

In East Asia and the Pacific, the Water Technology Access Partnership (WTAP), led by the World Bank’s Water Global Practice (GP) in collaboration with ImagineH2O Asia, connects innovators to water and wastewater service providers. By unlocking support for demonstration projects, WTAP makes emerging water technologies with the potential to boost water efficiency, mitigate pollution, and strengthen climate resilience accessible to utilities.

We jumped in the deep end with Nimesh Modak, Managing Director of ImagineH2O Asia and Shelley McMillan, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist and project lead for WTAP at the World Bank to unpack their shared confidence in the potential of technology to address the water sector’s most stubborn challenges.

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Q:  We are living through a technological revolution with unprecedented potential to impact nearly every sector in every country, but we are also seeing a global tech backlash. The techno-evangelist’s promise to solve our most pressing social and environmental challenges is yet to be realized fully ; trust in the tech sector still needs improving and the digital divide is exacerbating existing inequalities. Against this backdrop, what are the risks of bringing tech companies into the water sector and how can they be mitigated? 

Nimesh Modak: It's one thing for techno-evangelists to say that tech alone will solve climate disruption, or suddenly propel us back on track towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation by 2030. 

But it's another thing to be a techno-optimist and say both climate and water are solvable, and that technology will play a role as part of the solution. It just won't be the whole solution. Whether it's finding those early adopters in a sea of justifiably risk-averse customers – or navigating tough regulatory environments and securing buy-in during electoral cycles, water startups have to navigate a whole-solution context in order to succeed. 

All the while, they need to secure sufficient capital to stay alive long enough to get that market validation. Only then will they be equipped with the performance data needed to persuade others to deploy their solution. They need to get so much right to make it work. 

Yet nearly 85 percent of Imagine H2O’s 166 alumni companies are still around today. In part, this is because you can’t navigate water’s long sales cycles overnight. It’s also because technologies that aren’t solving a real and urgent problem simply don’t survive. Tech-push is not sustainable. Market-pull is. 

Our partnership with the World Bank helps us untap that market-pull across the region by connecting utilities and communities facing water and wastewater challenges with innovators supported through our programs. But access via awareness is just the first step. We need to ease the pathways to demonstration as well, particularly given risk aversion to trialing solutions that have not been tested locally yet. In collaboration with Water Global Practice staff in the field, WTAP supports the innovator and the end-user to design, co-fund and manage a pilot project that can help prove the benefits of a solution and incentivize wider adoption across the region. 

[At this point we delved into examples of how ImagineH20 companies have responded to various utility pain points. We had to edit this out for length, but you can learn more about ImagineH2O portfolio companies here.]

Q: What is driving the Water Global Practice’s bet on entrepreneurship to help solve long standing water utility challenges? Put another way, why is the Water Global Practice looking to startups and why is it doing so now?

Shelley McMillan: First, I think a lot of good ideas and solutions to problems are being developed by startups in the water sector, and new technologies are disrupting old ways of doing things. For example, the latest high resolution camera phones are powerful enough to conduct remote infrastructure supervision, in some instances replacing the need for in-person assessments. Trying to find an appropriate vehicle to bring some of that latest innovation to the bank is really driving the “why.”

Second, and particularly here in Southeast Asia, is that the digital technology space has grown significantly; a 100-billion-dollar economy has emerged over these last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And for the first time ever in 2020 you had 40 million new people going online. There is a really strong headwind driving technological innovation, so I think the moment is right for us to help our government counterparts access some of that in the water space.

I used to say that innovation is the future. But I feel, especially out here in East Asia and the Pacific, it isn't the future anymore, it's the present. We've got to get on board, or we certainly will be left behind.

Q: Technology startups often embrace a considerable amount of risk as part of their working culture, doing so with the goal of quickly developing innovations and building new solutions that address urgent problems. How can an effective partnership be built between a sometimes risk-averse multilateral institution such as the World Bank and an agile startup accelerator? What might be the key elements in a successful relationship between such organizations?

Nimesh Modak: I think that the notion of “fail fast, fail often” - a reference to the lean startup mantra - may work in many scenarios but I don't recommend it in water. Imagine H2O’s entrepreneurs are dealing with essential services and too much tinkering is risky. But something lean startups do well is get out there and speak to their customers. We are bringing this same approach to WTAP and it's what helps bridge our different worlds. 

World Bank staff in the field help explore utilities’ pain points so WTAP can verify potential fit and find internal champions who want to embrace innovation. When projects are underway, in-country networks are activated to help WTAP recipients navigate local operating environments. 

Lastly, as our projects progress or are completed, World Bank staff can play a vital role in disseminating the learnings for their staff and clients. 

A shared mission to make water innovation more accessible has created this innovation learning platform. Helping utilities access leapfrog solutions which they may have been unaware of or unable to access previously allows for Imagine H2O and the World Bank to play unique and complementary roles.

Q: COP26 recently wrapped-up and water was a hot topic. In short, climate change is exacerbating both water scarcity and water-related hazards, which manifest in more frequent and more extreme weather events like droughts and floods. Southeast Asian countries especially are among those most heavily affected by climate change. In the current climate, is a program like WTAP ambitious enough, or is it just a drop in the bucket?

Shelley McMillan: That's a tough one, right? On the one hand, we're dealing with this hesitancy. But then on the other hand, we face these wicked problems that require proportionate solutions. So we are caught between a rock and a hard place. Though we're starting from a relatively modest scale, the ambition is that the good practice we’ve built into the program will enable it to grow into something more significant in a short period of time.

Q: On the topic of scale, what are your thoughts on the potential for truly transformational technology in the water sector, something akin to the introduction of mobile phones in the telecommunication landscape, for example.

Shelley McMillan: In telecoms, it’s one issue, which is about connecting people via voice and data. Whereas in the water sector, it’s a multiplicity of different issues. You have all the various pieces of the water resources dimensions; irrigated agriculture; infrastructure, dams, levees, pumps, etc.; then you have the whole water supply and sanitation space. It's not as clear cut. 

That said, if we can drive innovation around decentralized services, that could be very transformative. Traditionally we have focused more on agglomeration as this tends to bring down the cost of infrastructure service provision, and that still holds. But new innovations like modular formats or package systems are more appropriate for smaller scales, meaning we no longer need to concentrate people in one big city to provide services. If technology can help us to provide services that are compact, appropriate, suited to a small scale, and low cost, we could still provide high quality services without so much concentrated pressure on the environment and the implications this has for climate change.

Q: With a minute left do you have any closing thoughts that you'd like to leave readers with?

Nimesh Modak: I will contradict my first response by indulging in some techno-evangelism. We see 300 to 400 startup applications a year across our innovation programs. From on-site wastewater treatment and reuse to biodegradable polymers for water-saving irrigation, I am thrilled to see firsthand how the quality and quantity of technology entrepreneurs is increasing.

We're also seeing more entrepreneurs come from sectors outside water. They're coming from aerospace engineering, finance, consumer software, energy and many other sectors and applying those skills to water and wastewater challenges. This diversity is essential as we take on new, underserved challenges like decarbonizing our water and wastewater infrastructure.  

Lastly, over 60 percent of Imagine H2O Asia’s applicants this year came from Asia itself. We're increasingly seeing more local solutions being developed to solve local challenges. WTAP can help accelerate this process and support local entrepreneurial ecosystems across the region. I’ll stop there!

Q: Before we log off, is there anything you’d like to leave readers with as a final take-away? 

Shelley McMillan: There are some really big things that are happening in the digital technology space. It doesn't replace the conventional vetted ways, but it enhances them significantly and brings the cost down tremendously. The possibility that through the WTAP program we can bring some of this knowledge and expertise to our clients, that’s really exciting.