Last Friday, October 30, Singularity University awarded three groups support and resources as part of its first-ever water-focused Impact Challenge. The 2015 Impact Challenge, in partnership with California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, asked applicants to leverage exponential technologies to increase California’s water supplies and, effectively, solve for the region’s immense drought.

The world is full of water, quite literally. Not even just the oceans, but the air too. Trouble is, most of it isn’t easily usable or accessible. Even most of the Earth’s fresh water isn’t readily accessible according to Nicholas Haan, Singularity University’s track chair for global grand challenges. Earth is the pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan famously said, yet this sustaining life force is cruelly kept out of the easy grasp of millions.

Singularity University’s 2015 Impact Challenge invited applicants using exponential technologies to solve California’s drought problems and water shortages specifically—but the solutions found here could be leveraged worldwide. And that’s an important note, because with current trends, some of the applicants estimate that within a decade, two thirds of the world will be suffering from water shortages.

Singularity University CEO Rob Nail speaks with a remote presenter following their Impact Challenge pitch.
Singularity University CEO Rob Nail speaks with a remote presenter following their Impact Challenge pitch.

Following a four month open application period, six Impact Challenge finalists were invited to pitch at Singularity University’s NASA Research Park campus in Silicon Valley. The challenge’s panel of 15 judges included representatives from Singularity University, Intel, Google X, XPrize, and an assortment of water-based organizations, like the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservations Agency.

The finalists ranged from early stage startup Permalution—creators of a standing device that collects data on fog patterns and extracts potable water from fog cover—to Ingersoll Rand subsidiary Trane, a leading global provider of commercial and industrial heating and cooling systems.

The pitches often focused on repurposing and recycling water.

Sanzfield Technologies’ device, for example, recycles residential wastewater. Trane aims to repurpose the considerable water produced from HVAC systems as a natural byproduct. And Desolenator is making a solar-powered desalination unit.

Other finalists opted to focus on potential water sources that have never been used at scale before. These included Permalution’s fog water harvester, AWE’s wind-powered atmospheric water extractor, and SunToWater’s solar-powered water extractor, which also produces water from the air.

Focusing on criteria including the use of exponential technologies, technical feasibility, and scalability, judges awarded admission into Singularity University Labs’ Entrepreneurship in Residence program as well as $5,000 in unrestricted grant money to SunToWater, Sanzfield Technologies, and Desolenator.

The 2015 Singularity University Impact Challenge winners.
The 2015 Singularity University Impact Challenge winners.

Taking first place, SunToWater is already selling personal solar-powered atmospheric water extractors—able to extract 40 gallons of water from the air a day—to residents of California for around $9,000 per device, a price that is expected to fall dramatically as production ramps up.

A now-independent spinoff company of electronics manufacturer Flextronics, the startup is also raising $4 million to take these prototypes into mass production to reduce the per-unit cost. They’re also in talks with organizations like Bill Gates’ Global Good team—to use the device in clinics in developing nations—and Coca-Cola to unlock new levels of water access globally. Coca-Cola has told SunToWater could be worth an additional $5 billion to their current business.

“13 trillion tons of water is trapped in the air around us,” said SunToWater founder Jeanine Johnson during her pitch. “If we could just harness 1%, it would be enough to supply the world’s residential water needs for four months.”

“I’m grateful to Singularity [University] for stepping up and stepping into the issue that defines our time here in California,” said California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom about the drought plaguing the region. In a keynote speech focused heavily on the fragmented politics of water resource management Newsom said, “We are not engaging the private sector as we should,” and added that one of the things he loves about the Singularity University community is they’re not interested in who’s to blame, but what to do.

“Scarcity is an old mindset and abundance is the mindset that should be our focus, and that optimism was obviously felt by the presentations we’ve experienced here today,” said Newsom moments before winners were announced.

That optimism is shared by the startups, mentors, and faculty behind SU Labs, where the Entrepreneurship in Residence is awarded. It’s hoped that the SU Labs network will help the winners scale their prototypes and demonstrably improve not only the state’s dwindling water resources, but potentially water crises globally.

Image Credit:; Alex Akamine

Matthew focuses on digital content strategies and social media for Singularity Hub and Singularity University, constantly wondering about the future of digital media and information distribution. Previously, he was a co-founder and Director of Communications for IDEAco, an educational Singularity University Labs nonprofit.

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