Organica Water, Innovation in Wastewater Treatment, and Good Neighbors

Matthew Kuzma, Vice President – Technical Solutions & Global Business Development of Organica Water, talks about change in wastewater treatment and being a good neighbour.

Organica WaterOne of our sessions during the Cleantech Forum Europe that will be held in Stockholm (May 19-21) is titled the 10 Year Track – How we (can have) Impact.  The theme is about how European companies are tackling environmental and resource challenges in some of the most populous and impoverished regions of the world. One of the speakers in this session is Matthew Kuzma of Organica Water, a company revolutionizing urban wastewater treatment and 2013 Global Cleantech “Company of the Year” in Europe and Israel.  Founded in 1998 in Budapest, Hungary, Organica Water now holds a major office in Princeton, USA as well as offices in cities such as Delhi, Shanghai and Jakarta.  We asked Matthew about his outlook on the future of cleantech and the future of his company.

Given the theme of our Forum (the “10 Year Track”: ideas on where innovation around energy and resources might take us in the years ahead) what is in store for Organica Water in the next 5 to 10 years? And for the water sector in general?

I joined the company in September based upon what is going to happen in the next 5 to 10 years.  Aside from having focused my career around wastewater treatment these past twenty years, I joined because the “macro” trends all support Organica Water’s business: rapid urbanization, rising energy costs, water scarcity, and increasing water quality challenges.  The Organica Water solution addresses all of these, including energy conservation, reducing necessary land requirement with a smaller physical footprint, increasing land value around wastewater treatment facilities, and creating reusable water to minimize impact on water supplies.

The major value add of the Organica Water solution is bringing wastewater treatment into the neighbourhood, into residential or dense urban areas where transporting water is costly and treating wastewater is ineffective.  In conventional planning, roughly $10 is spent on sewage transport (to and from the source) for every $1 spent on treatment, so it becomes obvious that minimizing the connection network costs is crucial.  Until now, there was a justifiably poor perception of wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) which are often still located in places where the land is cheap.  What Organica created is a visually appealing, odour-free, space-efficient, and cost-effective facility which blends harmoniously into a neighbourhood – thus making urban wastewater treatment and reuse a possibility.

In other words you are facilitating a behaviour change – making wastewater treatment cool?

People can easily relate to the farm-to-table movement, which is about connecting consumers with the origins of their food – unfortunately, wastewater treatment is not as glamorous.  People have no idea what happens when they flush the toilet and most of the time they are not very curious about it.  By bringing our activity into the community and because of the visual, natural aspect of the Organica Water facilities, wastewater treatment becomes a much bigger part of the local life.  Our flagship facility in the Budapest area, an upgraded Soviet-era facility, has become a landmark that politicians & people visit when touring Hungary.  For example, when the mayor of Shanghai visited Budapest, he was taken to see the wastewater treatment facility.  It is quite unusual to say ‘Hi & welcome to Budapest.  To show you how great Budapest is, we’d like you to tour our wastewater treatment facility’.

Another Organica facility is located in France, in a town called Iffendic.  It is a town with a population of four-thousand, yet 25% of the locals – a thousand people – turned out with wine and cheese for the inauguration. Our solution really changes the dynamic of a neighbourhood or city: operators and residents can be proud of the reuse and recycling of their wastewater instead of sending it underground.  This is also visible in media coverage: conventional treatment plants only get in the news when they make a mistake.  But staying underground and out of the news is not how we see innovation.

What would you say is your first target market?

What is interesting is the attention we get from emerging markets such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey or Latin America.  Those markets do not always have collection networks and infrastructure already in place which is an opportunity for them to leap directly ahead of the established infrastructure seen in North American and European countries.  In more developed markets, we adapt existing facilities to urban population movements in what is more of an upgrade to increase capacity or improve water quality to meet ever-tighter treatment standards.

What are the main obstacles you are facing, your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is resistance to change, especially in developed markets which are historically conservative, not only with regards to the technological innovations but also because of perceptions of our core business.  The whole concept of embedding a wastewater treatment plant into a neighbourhood is perceived as undesirable, for example. Often, the industry is led by decision-makers who have historically been slow to adapt to new alternatives, and the market is bound by their decision-making.  Our biggest challenge is changing the status quo in terms of the industry’s perception of what a wastewater treatment plant should look like.  To facilitate that change we are planning to launch a hosted software platform this summer which will allow any industry participant – from construction company, to consultant, to utility – to learn about our unique approach and instantly design a small-footprint, energy-efficient, beautifully-designed Organica-powered wastewater treatment facility.

What does success look like in the short and long term?

We view our solution as ‘Organica-powered’ treatment facilities.  It can be seen much like the engine of a car: we don’t build the car, or in our industry the entire facility, we only design the engine and supply a few components not available on the open market.  Hybrid cars are a good analogy. You don’t necessarily need to build the car, only the engine that makes the car more energy-efficient and less damaging to the environment.  Success for us would be how many facilities can be put out there or how many markets we can reach.  It is really about the process that makes the engine, or the facility, more widely used.