One of the resources to be seriously hit by climate change is water. It could be affected variously — melting glaciers, rising sea-levels, floods, droughts, and the scarcity of fresh water. And it is this urgent need for water security that prompted UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres during the UN 2023 Water Conference to beseech member states to “bring the water action agenda to life”.
Last year’s ‘State of the World’s Drinking Water’ report by the WHO, UNICEF and the World bank also flagged that “one-quarter of the world’s population is left without access to safe drinking water.” Yet, water has not been getting the attention it deserves.
It is against this backdrop that HCL Corporation says it decided to partner with World Economic Forum’s innovation platform, ‘Uplink’ to support water focussed entrepreneurs or ‘Aquapreneurs’, as they call them, through a $15-million grant over the next five years.
“We received over 450 applications in response to our first year’s Global Freshwater Challenge. An expert committee followed by a jury sifted through each of the applications to identify the most impactful start-ups already working in the space of water innovation with potential to scale and replicate across regions. Top 10 Aquapreneurs were selected and the cohort also included two Indian innovators,” informs Sundar Mahalingam, President Strategy at HCL Corporation.
So, who are these two Indian innovators who made it to the top 10? In the reuse of wastewater space is Indra Water, whose Co-founder and CEO Amrit Om Nayak has an engaging story to tell; the other is NatureDots, whose Co-founders Mohammad Aatish Khan and Snehal Verma are helping hosts of fresh water fisherfolk retain or restore waterbodies and in turn their livelihood.
Nayak, who grew up in a drought-prone region in southern India, and his Co-founder, Krunal Patel, (whose father had a chemical business), have experienced water stress and water pollution. Both studied advanced automotive technologies and soon focussed on water. “We started working on water during our Master’s program at the University of Washington in Seattle. We leveraged our skills and built a solution to treat wastewater electrically, and realised our solution could create a bigger impact back home in India,” explains Nayak.
The duo set up Indra Water in Mumbai in 2018, supported by Department of Science and Technology, IIT Bombay and KJ Somaiya Institute. Their patented electrically driven, decentralised wastewater solution has a modular design, 90 per cent smaller than the conventional set up and treats both domestic as well as industrial wastewater.
“Our systems are driven by Indra Smart automation and Spectrum analytics to optimise efficiency and performance,” says Nayak detailing how a conventional water treatment plant is designed from scratch and takes eight months or longer to build. “But Indra is able to build six water treatment plants with up to 1 million litres daily treatment capacity every 45-60 days…Indra’s innovations and quick turnaround time are also powering financial innovations in rental/leasing models backed by higher uptime, consistency and lower risk in deployed water assets.”
Indra Water has already treated over 750 million litres of water and with the grant hopes to make its footprint larger.
Khan and Verma are not far behind in their potential impact. As engineers with Master’s in Environmental Management, their attempt has been to “tackle the pain points of 15 million inland freshwater fish farmers and 2.5 million hectares of freshwater bodies, both reeling under acute stress due to the combined effect of deteriorating water quality and climate change.”
Their venture NatureDots is what they call a “hardtech” start-up which offers an AI powered product, AquaNurch. This plug-and-play device acts as a neural node for capturing the pulse of water ecosystems on a real-time basis. This “combines it with AI-engine loaded with ensembled hydrological models and captures the systemic ecological and anthropogenic disturbances, providing an end-to-end solution to fish farmers, and other users like water-asset managers,” says Khan.
He and Verma explain that their innovation enables quick detection of extreme weather events, harmful algae blooms, oil spills, and other environmental hazards. Having delivered over 110 projects in 30 countries, they are raring to make a bigger difference.