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Interview with ​Current Board Chairmen, Steve Kloos

Current: You are globally recognized in the water business, having served as GE’s Advanced Water Technology leader and now at True North Venture Partners. Why did you join Current as its Chairman?

 

Steve Kloos: The Chicago region is awash with water assets and capabilities, from strong fundamental research to water companies to innovative municipal and industrial end-users. The city asked me to engage and the more I looked at the possibilities the more I realized that there was a chance to pull together a unique and much needed organization that would combine what we have in Chicago with others nationally and internationally, into a platform that would tackle the biggest challenge the water sector faces today: removing structural barriers so water innovations can move forward to solve the world’s toughest water challenges like scarcity, resilience, access, and safety.

Current: In your experience as a scientist, industrial leader and investor, what are the biggest challenges companies face when commercializing new water technologies?

SK: There are 4 major challenges-

  1. First is getting the innovation right. It’s so hard to quantify the innovation in terms of techno-economics and the actual value proposition to a customer that many start-ups just skip this and instead focus on the ‘story.’ Most water innovations that result in start-ups aren’t actually based on an idea that makes any sense to pursue.
  2. Second is finding the right entry market. Municipal and industrial customers are generally pragmatic and risk-adverse – they don’t want to take the risk on trying ‘serial #1’ of a new product. Early-stage companies need to segment the market and find entry market(s) where they are solving a big problem.
  3. Third is proper engineering and deployment of a robust whole solution. This is where the Lean Start-up idea falls apart in ‘hardtech’ – companies can’t just put out a junky water pre-product to a municipal or industrial customer and then fix it on the fly – the risks and liabilities are too big.
  4. Fourth is the talent and the organization. This is so important – a successful company needs a great team along with the awareness that the organizational structure will change as the company commercializes and grows and a willingness to adapt.

Current: How do see Current helping to bridge gaps in the water tech commercialization process? Current isn’t a start-up contest or a feel-good ‘cluster’ organization – there’s others that do those things well. Instead, Current is addressing the innovation gaps that hinder much needed solutions from solving big water problems globally.

 

SK: For example, Current is tackling the validation problem. There are tremendous water issues facing cities, agriculture, industry, the developing world, etc. and there’s a growing frustration that solutions aren’t being implemented fast enough. On the one hand we have a lot of great ideas coming from universities and start-ups and on the other hand we see a hesitancy to adopt those ideas, all the while these big problems just get worse. Current is bridging that gap by vetting and validating new innovations (and helping to discern promising ideas from those that aren’t), reducing risks for the whole value chain, especially end users and investors. More rapid technology adoption is needed and by de-risking innovation for utilities, industry and investors, Current can solve a persistent commercialization challenge. As investment money flows into the water innovation space, such validation will help investors better manage risk.

And, Current Research is arguably, at least on paper, the nation’s largest water research collaboration and is beginning to collaborate with the best internationally. Current Research was created to drive more impactful research and link the toughest unmet needs and questions with fundamental science and engineering to create new understanding and new technologies.

Current Connect links those needs to solutions, the validation program, and if needed Current Research – to bring the ecosystem together to get things done.

Current: What areas of the water sector are most ripe for innovation and why?

SK: The world needs advanced water solutions. Legacy, traditional water treatment represents about $400 billion per year in spending globally. Over time, we’ll see investment growing in advanced water technologies. And, with water rates traditionally growing at 2 to 3 times inflation rates, we’re seeing these advanced solutions come into the money.

Current: How do you know when a company and its technology has real potential to create value?

SK: Unfortunately, you don’t know for sure until it happens! So, for pre-revenue companies it’s about a thorough, quantitative evaluation of the technology, competition, and market and the organization required to pull it off. Then, to identify the biggest risks and focus work on those first with a great team. If those risks can be overcome and the company successfully commercializes and the near-term and long-term pictures look bright, then value is being created.

Current: Over the past few years, the public’s attention has turned to water crises around the country, like drought, harmful algal blooms, lead and legionella. What impact do these serious concerns have on water innovation and the urgency to find and deploy new solutions?

 

SK: Necessity is the mother of invention and acute water crises do drive the hunt for advanced solutions. Sometimes a crisis lasts for a season and things go back to normal, but what we’re seeing now is an acceptance of a new reality where these crises are regular and a willingness to avoid those issues in the future. Look at what Chicago has done with the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) or with their dedication to reducing nutrient pollution – great examples of long-term planning driven by crisis (flooding and eutrophication, respectively). And, as examples, the microplastic issue that Orb Media has highlighted and the Cape Town ‘Day Zero’ water crisis are not just one-off, short-term problems but are spurring the need for innovation.

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