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Got innovation problems? Crowdsource it

Got innovation problems? Crowdsource it

Israel's got a water problem: it has none to speak off. For sixty years it threw state money at the problem, but now it's out-sourcing the solution to a new generation of entrepreneurs

When Old Testament prophet Ezekiel prophesied that dry bones would come to life in the deserts of Israel, it's unlikely he had in mind the revolution in water that's currently underway.

The old bearded one was invoking the spirit of the Lord. But  modern Israel is calling on legions of entrepreneurs, armed with microchips, microfilters and microorganisms to quench its growing thirst for clean, cheap water.

At issue: a population predicted to swell by another three million and growing demands from industry and agriculture.

At the same time sources are drying up: the Dead Sea is shrinking at an alarming rate, a five-year drought has ravaged Israel's aquifers and her friendly neighbours, Syria and Jordan, are vying for the same water spots.

Which is not to say Israel's been sitting on its hands. For the last 60 years it has done a remarkable job.

Mekorot, the highly innovative state-owned water company, manages up to 3000 sources, from desalination plants and aquifer wells to dams and recycle schemes.

Its ability to manage this decentralised portfolio of sources is the result of a massively high-tech monitoring system, meaning the company is as much into IT as it is into pipes.

But probably its biggest claim to fame is that up to 75 percent of Israel's water is recycled to drinkable condition. By law recycled water (they call it reclaimed) it must be used only for irrigation, which means the dusts of the Negev desert have been transformed into an agricultural wonderland. By comparison, the next best recycler of water is Spain at just 17 percent.

So far so good, but Israel's fast-growing demands combined with shrinking supply means Mekorot must find yet new ways to solve this age old problem. Enter the kids.

Tapping into the next generation of innovators, Israel is outsourcing its problems to a bunch of startups.

Take Emefcy, a new company that's been nurtured by a business incubator, one of 26 business incubators dotted around the country.

Emefcy (they admit themselves it's a terrible name) has cleverly combined the use of bacteria to treat waste-water and at the same time generate electricity.

The technology's not new; it was discovered 100 years ago that certain naturally occurring bacteria will shed electrons that can then be captured and turned into electricity.

But Emefcy has patented a plastic fabric that houses the bacteria and contains anode and cathode strips that transform the bacteria's output into electricity. The fabric, rolled into a spiral like a large bed roll, is stored in plastic barrels. The waste water enters at one end, and out the other comes treated water, with a remarkable 80 percent reduction in sludge compared to conventional treatments, plus electricity. You can combine as many modules as you like, one for a small village in Africa, or hundreds for a large municipality.

The Emefcy system could potentially replace the expensive treatment plants currently used by every town around the world. 

"Two percent of the world's energy goes into waste-water treatment, so if we can turn the process into a net contributor to the electrical grid then we've performed two majors benefits," says chief technology officer and co-founder Ronen Shechter.

Emefcy's not science fiction. It's attracted investment from both US and Israel,  including GE Capital. It's also setting up trial sites in Israel under the auspices of Mekorot.

Nor is Emefcy unusual. Hundreds of similar companies are emerging from incubators and garages all pitching to solve the world's water and energy problems.

Mekorot is so confident in the startup sector, it has created its own division, WaTech, specifically to seek and deploy pilot programmes.

And the encouragement is working. Water is now the largest sector, after surgical equipment, to attract VC investment in Israel.

Nothing like getting the kids onto it.