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Wanted: Innovative solutions to future water problems

Denver Water has been building bridges to the business and entrepreneurial communities.

The issues water providers see looming in the future are bigger than any single utility can solve on its own.

As planners seek to ensure that future customers enjoy the same high-quality, reliable water system we have now, they have to account for population growth, impacts of changes in climate, the economy, water-use patterns, government regulations and the rise of new industries.

That’s why Denver Water continues to promote a culture of efficient water use, invest in water reuse and explore new supply options.

An entrepreneur and participant in the Trout Tank: H20 business plan competition makes his pitch to a panel of judges on April 19, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and InSync Photography.

But, planners aren’t stopping there. In fact, a few years ago they started reaching out to business and technology communities throughout the region.

“The whole point is to develop relationships with organizations that we haven’t engaged with a lot in the past, especially in the business and start-up entrepreneurial worlds,” said Greg Fisher, Denver Water’s manager of demand planning.

“There are big issues ahead, such as the uncertainty related to climate change and questions about future water supply and quality issues,” Fisher said. “We’ll need innovative solutions and the ideas developed by these groups of people to meet these challenges.”

And the challenges and opportunities available to interested entrepreneurs extend far beyond Denver Water.

Globally, the water sector — including drinking water, wastewater treatment and associated infrastructure — is a $600 billion a year market, according to UBS Group AG, an international bank based in Switzerland.

Industrialized countries are replacing older water systems even as cities in emerging markets invest in developing essential water and wastewater treatment infrastructure, according to UBS.

Locally, Denver Water was among the sponsors of the recent “Trout Tank: H20” business competition organized by Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Denver Metro Small Business Development Center, Denver Water, Colorado State University and TAP-IN Colorado, a project by the Colorado Water Conservation Board to bring different groups together to tackle Colorado’s water issues.

Executives at start-up companies involved in the Trout Tank competition took part in eight weeks of training with mentors from the business community to refine their ideas and talking points.

Fisher helped narrow the field to five finalists who pitched their ideas to a panel of judges that included Tom Gougeon, who served on Denver Water’s five-member Board of Water Commissioners from 2004 to 2017.

The winner of the competition, RenewWest, was announced on April 19, and received a $5,000 prize to invest into the company. The company aims to help finance the planting of new trees in deforested areas by selling “carbon offset credits,” representing the planted trees, to California companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint.

Denver Water also participated in the 10.10.10 business competition in October 2017 that focused on issues surrounding water and transportation. The Denver-based group’s name is built on its process of inviting 10 entrepreneurs from across the United States to spend 10 days tackling 10 so-called “wicked problems” in a certain sector.

Fisher said he’s been impressed by the wide range of ideas put forward by the entrepreneurs who participated in the various forums.

Among the “Trout Tank: H20” participants was a company, Kokopelli Packraft, which is working on creating inflatable, packable kayaks, and Instream Water, a company working on a public, portable bottle filling station that could provide inexpensive water to paying customer’s toting their own bottles, reducing the number of single-use plastic bottles the waste stream.

“Every idea I saw in the Trout Tank competition helped connect people to water,” he said.

He’s also intrigued by how Denver Water could participate in moving innovations from concept to commercial product.

Most likely, he said, the organization might consider working with startups that need a real-world test bed for new products that ready for the commercial market.