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From Academia to Business – Taking the Leap

As part of our blog series, we will be catching up with Converge alumni – both past and present – to find out what it’s like to transition from academia to business; what motivated them to start and how Converge has helped them along the way. Kicking off the series we have KickStart 2019 winner, Dr. Ali Abbassi Monjezi of Waterwhelm, a water technology start-up developing a patent-pending process for self-powered wastewater treatment.

Q: What inspired you to start Waterwhelm?

The inspiration has been in development over the past six years of researching water science and engineering. I’d say there were three particular elements that contributed: number one, and the most significant, was learning about the data on water and sanitation from organisations such as the UNICEF and WHO – stats like 2.1 billion people worldwide lacking access to safe, readily available water at home or 2.5 billion lacking sanitation. In an age that we talk about commercial/touristic visits to the Moon, I think it is very important not to get carried away and forget the most basic needs of more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Number two was visiting rural and remote communities in Africa, Asia and South America. It was clear to me that the unique factor that all these communities are constrained by is the lack of clean water, subsequently affecting their ability to produce food through agriculture and facilitate a healthy life through adequate sanitation.

Number three was realising the challenges of the water industry in Scotland which accounts for the largest share of the nation’s electricity consumption. The water-energy nexus is often unnoticed. There are currently about 250,000 households in rural Scotland that are not connected to the sewerage network. On the other hand, the human digestive system is about 25% efficient at converting the chemical energy present in food into mechanical output, the rest ends up in the sewage. You put the two together and realise that from an engineering ‘energy balance’ perspective, a lot is being wasted. Waterwhelm will tap into this vastly undermined bio-resource to facilitate a circular economy around sewage.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Water supply is taken for granted in the UK and especially in Scotland. People generally underestimate the challenges involved in the water industry. Because of the geographic elevations in Scotland and the high number of remote/rural communities, water and wastewater pumping leads to high electricity consumption and therefore costs. That’s why decentralised wastewater treatment and water supply make perfect sense.

In addition, industrial innovation is capital intensive and therefore the risks are high but at the same time the rewards are also correspondingly high. Communication of the scales, particularly regarding the finances, has been a challenge.

Q: You come from an academic background – how difficult has it been to transition from academia to the world of business?

The transition is a big challenge. Generally speaking, academia certainly allows more flexibility in terms of introducing novel concepts. In industry and consequently business, the focus of innovation is addressing an immediate problem and the solution must include two important elements, compatibility with the current infrastructure and financial viability, which are usually not critical issues when it comes to conceptual innovation in the academic realm.

Q: Why did you apply for KickStart 2019?

The short answer is recognition. I have spent over six years of my twenties researching water science and technology, trying to do my bit to tackle one of the greatest challenges facing humanity which also has huge commercial potential. KickStart 2019 was an opportunity to get recognised but also for Waterwhelm to gain traction and credibility.

Q: How did you feel when you won first prize?

Absolutely thrilled. It was really encouraging to be recognised for all the previous hard work.

Q: What did you get out of the KickStart programme that you didn’t expect?

The training was top-notch and delivered by leading businesses and consultancies in Scotland. I expected the KickStart programme to be just a competition but it is so much more than that. We received training on pitching, commercial banking and supply chain, marketing and branding, finance and accountancy, product development, intellectual property and recruitment which are all parts of the journey a new business such as Waterwhelm would go through.

Q:What are you planning to do next and where do you see the company in five years’ time?

We are currently applying for grants and raising investment to build a pilot plant which will demonstrate the advantages of the invention in an industrial set-up. Our plan is to provide decentralised wastewater treatment for at least 10% of the 250,000 houses not on the sewerage network in Scotland within the next five years.  As well as creating employment opportunities and economic prosperity through the use of waste resources, this would contribute towards achieving a circular economy.

What’s more, the implementation of this invention will lead to substantial savings in terms of carbon emissions, helping Scotland reach its target of 90% emission reduction by 2050 through renewable energy generation from wastewater sludge and prevention of wastewater transportation via pumping and trucks. Protecting the environment takes a collective effort and we are delighted to be playing our part.