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Confluence: The genesis of a water technology innovation cluster

A new innovation center in Cincinnati is helping bring together the expertise of the region’s water technology expert.

Interview with Alan Vicory and John Menninger, Principals (Cincinnati), former Chairman and Board Member, respectively, of Confluence, a Cincinnati-based water innovation technology cluster.

What is a Water Technology Innovation Cluster?

It’s a business cluster, centered on research and entrepreneurship. The notion of a business cluster is well established and embraced, particularly as an economic driver for an area. Silicon Valley is perhaps the best known business cluster – for microchips. Los Angeles is a cluster region for film making, Austin is a cluster for computer technology.    

Our organization, Confluence, is located in the water resources rich area of the Ohio River Valley Basin – specifically Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Our goal is to build a network of support that aggressively pushes new technology from R&D to final product to the market.

Cincinnati is an acknowledged global center for water technologies. We have the US EPA Research Laboratory and, just up the road, is the research lab for the US Air Force.  We also have excellent universities and water technology business based here. The physical and intellectual assets here are unsurpassed worldwide.

Why Now?

We believe we are truly in a golden age for innovation in the water sector. We are seeing a “confluence” in recognition of how valuable water is and at the same time understanding the water-related risks we face to our eco-system, human health and business sustainability. These include: algal toxins and lead in our nations drinking water systems, "big data" in the water sphere,  water / energy nexus,  and water saving technologies.

Moreover, developments in science are truly game changing—technologies such as microbial fuel cells, computational technology, sensors, membranes, and chemical materials are driving a fundamental shift, such as considering wastewater as a resource. There is a growing recognition that technologies must come forward to address water challenges, in the US and globally.

Our vision is to help businesses identify markets and test, develop, and commercialize innovative technologies to solve environmental challenges and, at the same time, spur sustainable economic development and job creation locally.

The organization is just  five years old, but what are some of the areas you have been focused on?

We are looking at barriers to innovation and putting capacities in place to attack them head on. For example, state and federal government policies can be counterproductive to technology development.  States approve a new technology deployment for a discharge permit. It costs businesses to prove efficacy. The problem the process must be duplicated state-by-state. To some degree this may not make sense. Confluence brokered a simple but potentially far reaching agreement among Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky to cooperate on Confluence technology development issues such as that we just mentioned. Having a three-state coordinated testing protocol, a successful demonstration immediately creates a market for deployment in three states instead of one.

And, we know that technology developers need real world sites to demonstrate their product or process. Say they want to deploy a widget to a water plant to prove it can do what it is designed to do.  We have developed loose agreements with wastewater and water utilities to serve as testing sites for these types of innovations.

Can you describe some of the technologies you are looking at now, and how Confluence is helping?

We are working with a developer of an analytical instrument, which is comprised of 26 components. He was looking for a manufacturer and we were happy to introduce him to several in the Cincinnati area. Other firms we have assisted are working on technologies to enhance security of water distribution systems, generate electricity from wastewater, and make urban stormwater infrastructure work more efficiently. The spectrum is truly broad reaching.

We look at opportunities very closely from an economic standpoint, as well as its intrinsic technical value. In working with the technology developer, we would ascertain if the business can establish a local distribution site, put in data center, open up an office?  So, the economic benefit can be ancillary to the water business itself but it still promotes the technology advances.

What roles do you as individuals and Stantec as an organization fill within Confluence?

Alan: I am an engineer and an environmentalist and have worked for 32 years in the regulatory sector. So, I have gained a strong understanding of water challenges and the political and regulatory overlay. Through my years as Executive Director of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), which encompasses eight states, I gained a very broad perspective. When asked to Chair this new organization comprising multiple regions- Dayton, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky I was described as “the least biased individual in Cincinnati,” which I take as a compliment. So, I led Confluence as the board Chair for its first three years, until recently stepping down to enjoy some more time in Florida.

John: I was fortunate enough to be elected to Confluence’s board at the end of last year, thus maintaining a Stantec membership within the seven member Board of Trustees.  I’ve got large shoes to fill, but hope to do so with a mixture of passion, fresh ideas and of course sage advice from Alan.  Stantec, as one of the largest water consultancies in the world, provides critical resources of technological knowledge and industry connections. As a Sustaining Member of Confluence, Stantec as an organization has a role in strategic planning and an adivisory role to the board and members.

What keeps you up at night?

The time frame for researching, developing, testing and deploying new technologies can take 15 years. Yet, the global water crisis is developing daily and the gaps in terms of the crisis and emerging needed technology is widening. So we have to accelerate technology – there is no Plan B.

We have to accelerate technology – there is no Plan B.

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