men in construction gear repairing a pipe burst
Boulder, Colorado Pipe burst repair in Boulder, Colorado. © Watchtower Robotics

Technology and Innovation | The Nature Conservancy

New Environmental Technologies Need Space to Grow

Large companies and organizations can grow environmental innovation through collaboration with start-ups.

Headshot of Tyler Mantel is Co-founder and CEO, Watchtower Robotics.
Tyler Mantel Co-founder and CEO, Watchtower Robotics

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As climate-related threats to water security increase, water infrastructure is crumbling worldwide—an alarming 20 percent of treated drinking water is lost through leaks in distribution pipes. Without major efforts, leaks and water main breaks will continue to surge, further exacerbating water losses and shortages, damaging city streets and buildings, and racking up incredible costs for repairs. Unless we rebuild infrastructure’s maintenance and repair strategy from the ground up, the majority of it will require replacement in the next 30 years.

This is just one of many environmental challenges that could be solved by leveraging smart technology to rapidly scale a solution—something start-ups are particularly good at. But for an environmental start-up to succeed, it must overcome certain barriers—namely, awareness, funding, and exposure.

Larger companies, meanwhile, face far better odds against those impediments, but lack the incentives to innovate on the small scale required for new-to-world environmental technology. That’s why, by partnering with environmentally focused start-ups, the giants of the tech space can enable more innovators to address the most pressing problems on the ground knowledgeably, efficiently—and even profitably. In turn, as these startups scale, they generate more data and utilize products provided by large tech companies.

pipes and valves
Pipes and Valves Pipes and Valves on a stream. © Creative Commons
A soft robot with eight tactile sensors that collect data from water pipes
Watchtower Technology The patented robot design makes use of eight tactile sensors. © Watchtower Robotics

Take the aforementioned water infrastructure challenge. New technologies that allow for focused repairs in lieu of replacing an entire system could provide realistic, cost-effective solutions to many cash-strapped utilities. My company, Watchtower Robotics, has developed one such innovation—a soft robot that collects data as it navigates distribution pipes on the natural flow of water, which has already demonstrated strong potential in pilot projects around the globe.

While Watchtower’s technology is gaining traction, the company still faces many hurdles, some of which it has managed to surmount through collaboration with Microsoft and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).  Our relationship shows that greater partnership between established and up-and-coming companies could help mitigate some of the challenges associated with ramping up an environmental technology start-up.

Bringing Attention to Invisible Infrastructure

For most people, infrastructure is invisible until it fails. With water pipes buried underground, many residents may not be aware of the state of their local infrastructure as long as the faucet works—it's usually when service is interrupted that communities begin to think about sustainability challenges. Even then, it can be difficult to diagnose problems and conceptualize solutions.

Larger organizations like Microsoft and TNC have the capacity to gather valuable data and promote science-based solutions to help bring attention to hidden infrastructure and sustainability challenges. With such support and a broader reach, solutions like Watchtower’s can become even more impactful.

Environmental Start-ups have Profit Potential, but they Need Investment

While many start-ups experience difficulties in raising funding, this barrier can be even more challenging to surpass for sustainability-focused start-ups. For one, venture capitalists (VCs) often conflate sustainability with philanthropy. Many investors doubt the potential for profitability in environment-focused products, and hesitate to invest large sums of money.

What’s more, VCs often select software-focused investments over those pertaining to urban infrastructure. When evaluating companies that can create lasting value for the environment and urban infrastructure, VCs should look beyond the hardware risks and long sales cycles typical of these startups. Instead, they should consider the multitude of players—governments, infrastructure investment firms, and more broadly all the people of the world­– who receive value from these startups, and all the ways in which that value can be monetized.

Traditionally, grants from government agencies, non-profit organizations, and start-up accelerators that prioritize societal impact—like TNC’s Techstars program—have ensured a space for environmentally minded innovators, but large companies can help accelerate growth in this increasingly critical area. Where there are societal benefits, financial gain will follow.

Established Tech Companies can Lend Exposure and Credibility to Start-ups

While the latest gadgets and digital technologies are widely celebrated across news outlets and specialty media, environmental start-ups don’t often benefit from the same exposure, which makes a difference in business scaling.

There are a number of ways that established organizations can pave the way for smaller operations to thrive. In addition to their traditional sustainability efforts—such as advocating for public policy or committing to socially responsible corporate policy—nonprofits and corporations can lend exposure and credibility to smaller, promising operations through investments of capital or mentorship.

The unique confluence of expertise in technology and conservation that the partnership of large organizations and environmental start-ups represents could generate the energy needed to confront the urgent—and often neglected—threats to human development that are emerging on our warming planet.  

The tech sector is still a relatively unknown player when it comes to environmental challenges—that needs to change. The benefits of investing in environmental tech, and the costs of ignoring them, have never been clearer.   

Watchtower Robotics, Microsoft and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) will host a showcase on Tuesday, August 27, 2019 from 14:00 to 15:30 (CET) during World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Headshot of Tyler Mantel is Co-founder and CEO, Watchtower Robotics.

Tyler Mantel is Co-founder and CEO, Watchtower Robotics. Follow him on LinkedIn.