SXSW Eco 2013 – Shark tank for environmental innovators

environmental innovationThe third SXSW Eco took place this past week in Austin. The mission of the annual conference is to bring together “thought leaders and decision makers” who are “working to solve the complex challenges facing civil society, the economy, and the natural world.”

Both the energy industry and environmental groups were represented. Numerous green tech and clean tech startup companies used the occasion to present their projects to a community of enthusiasts and investors. General attendees could choose from a full program of educational presentations and collaborative sessions designed to bolster and broaden the environmental movement.

A central theme discussed at the conference was water – everything from global water sanitation issues and water scarcity to the conflicts sparked by the changing flow patterns of surface water. One question posed to a panel of experts was “Who wins the water?” Peter Gleick, president of Pacific Institute, says “Forget about peak oil, we’ve reached peak water.” According to an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, peak water is a concept that has helped “shift the way freshwater resources are managed toward more productive, equitable, efficient, and sustainable use.”

Humanity has reached the end of cheap and easy access to usable fresh water. In response, Gleick prescribes a ‘soft path’ approach to deal with the wide-ranging issue of fresh water withdrawal and use limits. The ‘soft path’ does not rely on centralized physical infrastructure like dams, pipelines and treatment plants alone, which Gleick calls the ‘hard path.’ Instead, the ‘soft path‘ approach uses a series of integrated tools in conjunction with traditional infrastructure to manage water resources more effectively.

There are currently tremendous market opportunities for innovations that address peak water issues. At the conference I heard many times that new technologies can make a significant contribution to conserving and efficiently managing the limited freshwater resources that remain. One interesting startup I learned about is Water Smart Software. This innovative water use tool provides real time (big) data that utility customers can use to monitor their consumption – facilitating significant progress in management and conservation efforts over time. This software-as-a-service provides water managers with a platform to make water conservation a reality by putting consumption data in front of users. According to the Water Smart website, “Customers receive Home Water Reports via paper or email. Each is tailored to help them understand their water use, how it compares to similar homes, and actions they can take to use water more efficiently.”

This year’s SXSW Eco demonstrated that serious global environmental challenges also mean vast opportunities for clean tech and green tech innovations. VC investors with cash on hand are hungry to find companies that will help solve the world’s greatest environmental problems – and they are eager to invest in promising startups.

environmental dataCarissa Ries

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