Beedie Alumni Saving the Planet: one drop of water at a time

Apr 18, 2013
Saltworks

Saltworks Technologies co-founders Joshua Zoshi, left, and Ben Sparrow are making waste water usable.

By Remy Scalza.

That the planet’s supply of freshwater is dwindling is little surprise.  Just where it’s going, however, is eye opening.  It takes roughly 1,500 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, as much as 5,700 liters to grow and process the ingredients needed for a fast-food combo meal and about 120,000 liters to make a car – enough water to fill half an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“If you consider the volume of wastewater generated by industrial and agricultural activity, it’s absolutely massive,” says Joshua Zoshi, president of Vancouver-based Saltworks. “We’re trying to do something about that.” Zoshi, together with fellow Beedie School of Business alum Ben Sparrow, founded Saltworks in 2008 in hopes of harnessing next-gen desalination technologies to produce and conserve freshwater.

Just four years later, the pair find themselves working with some of North America’s largest oil and mining companies, not to mention NASA, on reducing mankind’s water footprint. “Every morning, you get out of bed and know you have the opportunity to change the world,” Zoshi says. “That passion is my business.”

For the moment, Saltworks is headquartered in a former fish-processing plant on Vancouver’s industrial port, tucked between the waterfront and a sea of shipping containers.  “We had to power-wash the walls to get rid of the smell,” Zoshi jokes, leading the way onto a busy workshop floor cluttered with prototypes, pumps, plastic tubing and pressure gauges.

An electrical engineer by training, Zoshi teamed up with Sparrow, a former BC Hydro project manager with a secret passion for thermodynamics, back in 2005 while they were pursuing the Management of Technology MBA at Beedie.  “Ben invented, basically in his spare time, a brand new way to desalinate water,” Zoshi explains.  “It was a definite game changer.”

After completing their MBAs, the pair reunited to commercialize the idea.  With $180,000 in seed funding won in New Ventures BC, a province-wide technology competition, Zoshi and Sparrow launched Saltworks – a fully functioning desalination test plant along Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet.  Today, the company employs some 30 engineers and tradespeople and boasts 15,000 square feet of labs and R&D facilities.

“This is the heart of our technology,” Zoshi says, pointing to a lab bench where plastic tubing snakes in and out of stacks of plastic membranes clamped together like pages in a book.  The proprietary ion-exchange membranes – at once elementary and revolutionary – enable salt to pass through but not water.  The result: an eco-friendly way to desalinate using far less electricity than existing technologies requiring high-pressure pumps or heating.

“One-fifth of the world’s population doesn’t have access to fresh drinking water,” Zoshi says, “and that number is only going to grow.”  The Middle East and Australia, as well as urban centers in China and India, all represent immediate markets for Saltworks’ new desalination technology, he explains.  Indeed, by 2025, the UN estimates a full two-thirds of the global population could be under water stress conditions.

But Zoshi and Sparrow quickly discovered that water scarcity isn’t just an international matter.  “We were surprised to find that there are huge water challenges right here at home in Canada,” he says.  “Out in the oil sands, for instance, the amount of water used for natural resource extraction is just tremendous.”

Lately, the company has pivoted to meet these needs, applying its technologies to help recycle and reuse industrial wastewater. Saltworks already boasts dozens of clients in the oil, gas and mining sectors in North America and Australia.  “Almost every commercial process – from resource extraction to food production – leaves behind water that can be cleaned and reused,” Zoshi says. “The demand for wastewater treatment is overwhelming.” In just the next five years, the market for treatment infrastructure is expected to exceed $80 billion, according to industry analysts Global Water Intelligence.

Weaving past workers in steel-toed boots and safety goggles, Zoshi shows off a car-sized prototype of the company’s latest innovation, the SaltMaker.  Using a system of humidification and dehumidification, the machine takes industrial wastewater – contaminated with salts and other environmental pollutants – and separates it into a concentrated salt solution and freshwater.  The freshwater can then be returned to the environment or reused in industrial processes.  “We’re doing this in a way that uses much less energy and has a much smaller footprint than ever before,” Zoshi says.

Already, other uses for Saltworks technologies are emerging.  Last year, the company received nearly $1 million from B.C.’s Innovative Clean Energy Fund to explore applications in the province’s mining industry.  And last March, Saltworks was awarded a contract by NASA to design a unique water recovery system for the International Space Station. “Up there, they need to squeeze every last drop – no pun intended – out of their resources,” Zoshi says.  One major source of water is astronauts’ urine.  But existing treatment systems get jammed by the excess calcium leached from astronauts’ bones in zero-gravity conditions. Saltworks has developed a fix. “If all goes well, our units will be in orbit one day,” he says.

Zoshi leads the way from the busy workshop floor out to the cold Vancouver night.  Freight trains rumble by, while massive container cranes offload ships huddled in port. “The understanding of the mechanics of innovation and being an entrepreneur that we got from Beedie was so crucial,” Zoshi says. “There’s a world of difference between having an idea and turning it into a viable business.”

With entrepreneurial pride, he shows off the future of Saltworks: a full-scale version of the SaltMaker, housed in a 40-foot long shipping container and designed for deployment at industrial sites. “Our mandate is that every innovation we pursue bring both environmental benefits and be competitive in the marketplace,” he says.  “There’s absolutely no reason that sustainability and profitability can’t coexist.”

This story was first published in the March/April edition of Ideas@Beedie magazine, the Beedie School of Business’ iPad and digital magazine showcasing the business school’s academic research, industry impact and engagement with the community. To view the full digital magazine or download the iPad app, visit http://beedie.sfu.ca/ideas

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