Imagine H2O:
The Future of Water

A Water Start-Up Accelerator in San Francisco

July 11, 2019

With more than 80 start-ups from 30 countries in its portfolio and partnerships with more than 60 companies, a non-profit called Imagine H20 based in San Francisco is working to help researchers and entrepreneurs bring to market their ideas to solve the problems afflicting the water industry worldwide.

According to its website, Imagine H20 operates in five areas in which it supports people looking to develop innovative solutions:

  • Scarcity and security: to guarantee access to clean water for everyone
  • Water efficiency: especially in farming to reduce waste
  • Utility operations: to improve infrastructure and cuts costs
  • Monitoring and treatment: to develop new ways to analyse and purify
  • Data and analytics: the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to manage data  

At the heart of Imagine H20’s work is its accelerator programme, which has reached its 10th edition. It involves a rigorous selection process of ideas it receives every year and 10 months of remote learning to develop them into a business model. Contrary to other accelerators, Imagine H20 does not require participants of the programme to relocate to Silicon Valley. «We’ve always operated remotely, because water is a local issue» Imagine H2O Vice President of Strategy and Business Development Nimesh Modak said in a 2017 interview posted on a blog managed by Sloan, a maker of bathroom fixtures. «We inspire links and connections for vetting, customer deployment, piloting and demonstration, which can be a key barrier for a very early-stage startup».

The level of interest that Imagine H20 has generated worldwide is reflected in the numbers. For 2019, it is overseeing 10 out of more than 250 ideas from 47 countries for the programme. The benefits of participating in the programme are multiple. The start-ups can develop their business ideas by working closely with mentors and entrepreneurs, write up a business plan, hold fundraising meetings and increase their visibility.

Imagine H20 recently opened the first edition of its accelerator programme in Singapore to widen its reach to start-ups across Southeast Asia. This has led to eight projects taking part.

But Imagine H20’s contribution to the development of innovative ideas does not stop with the accelerator programme. It also has the Beta Partner Program, which is done in collaboration with utilities, banks and industrials like Wells Fargo, Suez, Pepsico, the PUB-Singapore Water Agency, Santa Clara Water District and San Francisco Water Power Sewer. It allows entrepreneurs to put their ideas through beta testing at big companies. In this way, they can reduce the time it takes to develop their ideas at lower cost. So their ideas do not stay on paper and get put to the test quickly. In the event they generate a positive result, the ideas get commercialised.

In 2018, Imagine H20 launched Urban Challenge, a competition for ideas and projects to solve water problems in megacities. As explained on its website, the challenge gives entrepreneurs the resources to develop their ideas. Since the first edition in 2018, it has been able to raise $1.5 million in pilot funding awards and investment opportunities for the winners.

As a result, Imagine H20 has become a reference point for the most innovative and disruptive ideas in the water sector. Valor Water Analytics took part in the accelerator programme in 2015 and quickly became a leader in the field of data analytics for utilities. It was later acquired by Xylem, a U.S. supplier of water infrastructure. ZwitterCo was founded by Alex Rappaport, a young researcher who was a finalist in a MIT Innovation Challenge who proposes membranes with nantofiltration to treat wastewater. eWaterPay is a pre-payment water dispenser that relies on technology like the Internet of Things and cloud-based data analytics. Predominantly working in Sub-Saharan Africa, it ensures access to clean water in communities that need it most. Then there is SmartTerra, a start-up in Bangalore that uses artificial intelligence to support utilities for water main ruptures and malfunctions.

«The water industry, and solutions to people's watering needs, is as old as civilization itself», said Imagine H20 Chairman Tamin Pechet said in a June 2018 article posted on the website of Havard Business School. «If you look at the ancient ruins in Petra, you see little aqueducts that carried water to people who needed it. What's missing is how to bring to bear some of the innovative new solutions and technologies–things like data analysis, using the internet to carry signals of information, advanced treatment technologies–things like that, and how to build sustainable businesses that improve the way water and wastewater are managed».

Imagine H20 has been successful because it has found a way to harness the Silicon Valley approach to water and create a virtuous ecosystem composed of multiple stakeholders such as innovators, business angels, venture capitalists, big business and universities that work together to find innovative solutions that improve people’s lives.