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Insight and Advice

from an Innovation Pioneer

Creativity and logic are almost as uncommon of a combination as brilliance and humility. Yet both paradoxical pairs are easy to see when chatting with industry game changer, Pierre Côté.

In addition to being the principal inventor of the ZeeWeed® membrane, Côté is a 30-year industry veteran and former CTO for ZENON, which is now a part of Suez. He holds more than 100 patents and has won the prestigious Manning Principal Award.

Obviously, we couldn’t be more honored to have him as a technical advisor. Pierre Côté is the perfect example of the elite level of expertise and insight Current is able to offer our members.

Côté lives in rare air as far as innovation and commercialization are concerned. The ZeeWeed® membrane is one of the most successful large-scale water and wastewater treatments ever conceived.

With degrees in Civil and Chemical engineering, Côté’s first focus in the realm of sustainability was in hazardous waste. He made the switch to membrane technology in post doc work in France at the Suez Research Centre. After France, Côté returned home to Canada in an R&D capacity and set out to see if what he had learned in France would work for membrane bioreactors (MBR). After a few failed attempts that cost a great deal of money and more than a few sleepless nights, the idea for ZeeWeed® was born.

At the time, the bundle of hollow fibers used without a pressure vessel created a membrane design that was a radical departure from the status quo. Over the next few years of development, two more key pieces of the groundbreaking puzzle fell into place. The addition of coated and braid-reinforced hollow fibers was critical to ensuring durability, and a sophisticated aeration system created a more efficient means of keeping the fibers clean while reducing energy consumption.

All in all, it took upwards of a decade to validate the technology. Once complete, the final result was a filtration system that required significantly less energy and money. With the process no longer cost prohibitive, the technology could be adopted by municipalities and industries around the world, creating a huge leap forward in clean water for all of us.

Through this process and his many other endeavors, Côté has amassed a vast degree of insight and expertise. Which he is generous enough to share.

When asked what advice he would offer readers, Côté said something unexpected: Cross-Pollinate. “At some point in your career, it’s a good idea to switch fields and reapply what you know into a whole new arena.” Although he believes the best background for water innovation is engineering, he also believes in expanding boundaries. “Everything is so specialized and siloed now, and it can result in thinking that becomes too narrow,” he explained.

When it comes to the creative process, Côté believes there can be a benefit to not having a huge depth of knowledge about something. He speculates that had he known the field of membranes better all those years back, he might not have thought so far outside the box and come up with the idea for ZeeWeed®.

If physically changing fields is not an option, cross pollinating ideas can happen in other ways. Reading outside your field, researching outside your field and networking outside your field are all excellent ways to expand your creative boundaries.

Côté advises studying how problems are being solved in other fields and exploring whether that can be reapplied to yours. And conversely, understanding what the challenges are being faced elsewhere, and how your work can create new solutions in that arena.

Another essential tip: “Get over the mindset that everything has already been invented. Do not look for ideas. Look for problems and try to solve them.”

And above all, Côté encourages innovators not to be afraid to fail. He believes R&D managers should encourage staff to fail, so that they are willing to take risks. The other side of risk, he reminds us, is where the original ideas are found.

As far as scaling and commercialization goes, the idea is to move into real-life conditions as soon as possible. Getting experimental proof-of-concept early and challenging assumptions is key, because there will always be issues that can’t be foreseen.

“Crossing the desert between idea and commercialization is a bit of a Catch 22,” he explains. “You can’t go to market without testing and proving out the technology. But you can’t test it until it is being used in real world conditions.”

This is another arena in which Current brings value to its membership. With a unique program designed to de-risk innovative water technology solutions for industries, utilities and investors, Current validates early-stage water technologies through a structured and comprehensive process that includes analyzing technical and economic merits, pilot testing technologies, assessing market potential, and helping to refine business cases.

“Bringing credibility by introducing technologies to early adopters creates easier transitions, and substantially speeds up the process of scaling and commercialization,” Côté says. “Getting proven results and endorsements is critical.”

As an advisor, Côté is excited to bring all this expertise and more to his involvement with Current. He looks forward to mentoring innovators and sharing his experience, so others can create smart development road maps and avoid common traps.

“A strong group of advisors can be difficult to put together, but Current has assembled a group of people and made a great deal of expertise available.”

When it comes to collaboration, it’s not just the quantity of the people that come together but the quality. At Current, we are proud to bring you both.

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