Amplifying a ripple of water innovation into a wave of opportunity

On World Water Day 2022, we spotlight our Singapore-based joint-venture incubator solving the hardest problems in H2O. 

It is hard to fathom what would cause a developed nation to struggle with shortages of water, arguably society’s most basic resource. Yet one need only look at Singapore, a small, wealthy city-state in the middle of the tropics, to see a poster child for water woes. The country ranks among the least water-secure in the world and has been forced to ration water numerous times throughout its history. Its lack of reliable sources of H2O means it must import 40% of its water—a situation that climate change will likely exacerbate. This is compelling Singapore’s government to seek innovative ways to keep the taps flowing.

Emerald is proud to be part of Singapore’s water resilience strategy. Our joint-venture organization ripple2wave is the only one in Singapore focused on incubating early-stage water startups. Founded in 2019, it nurtures the home-grown companies developing technologies that can solve water challenges both in Singapore and globally. It also aims to bring overseas startups and technologies to bear on these problems. It is a 50-50 project between Emerald and Singapore-based VFT Ventures, with support from Enterprise Singapore and PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.

Deep technological expertise is the secret sauce of Emerald’s investment evaluations and ripple2wave is no different. The in-house ripple2wave team boasts doctorates in environmental and mechanical engineering, meaning they understand the hard science behind the technologies the startups are working on. Each startup is screened for the ingenuity of its solutions and its potential to scale to address similar problems globally.

Given that water rarely lands atop the list of sectors startups are hoping to disrupt, ripple2wave works to foster a mindset shift among entrepreneurs, helping to convince them of the potential of this space and pivot toward tackling it. An example of this was ripple2wave’s inaugural hackathon in 2021, organized to identify and create digital water startups and teams and match problems with solutions. Co-organized with the Singapore University of Social Sciences to attract mid-career professionals interested in becoming entrepreneurs, the event solicited problem statements from large industry players like PUB and Sembcorp and ultimately spurred the creation of three proofs-of-concept.

A steady drip of impact

The startups at ripple2wave can generally be divided into three categories: advanced materials, sensors and the Internet of Things. As water is a huge field that touches every industry, they also aim to leverage technologies traditionally seen in adjacent sectors, such as agriculture and pharmaceuticals.

ripple2wave works with startups in several ways:

  • Overcoming fundamental technological or product design hurdles
  • Identifying and helping to obtain grant and funding support, including helping them tell a cogent and compelling story
  • Linking them with large, established corporates that can scale their solutions

This last point is a manifestation of Emerald’s unique “open innovation” approach, which sees global conglomerates hungry for the innovations of tomorrow work with insurgents at the frontiers of their field. This kind of specialized matchmaking can be a game changer for industrial firms racing to transition to net zero operations and fulfill other green mandates. ripple2wave’s portfolio companies are looking to play a major role in the shift toward a more environmentally friendly world and contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals; three of them are working with the Asian Development Bank, for instance, on water conservation projects in developing countries.

This helps demonstrate the principle that companies can do well by doing good. The ripple2wave portfolio companies all early stage, displaying a level of drive and gumption to ascend to the heights of their field. This is represented by the fact that each arrangement with the portfolio companies is highly customized—startups are not bound by a fixed “graduation” term. Instead, the incubator adapts to the specific situation of each startup and elevates them to the next level and beyond. ripple2wave sees itself as a true partner alongside its portfolio companies’ journeys, providing bespoke services that fit their individual needs.

In the years ahead, ripple2wave will continue to propel its startups from the small yet vibrant Singaporean ecosystem into the wider market. Solving the formidable problems facing the global water system is not going to happen overnight, but Emerald—via ripple2wave and its partners—looks forward to playing a part in this dynamic and fast-growing space.