According to UNICEF, 2.5 billion people globally lack access to clean water. This disturbing statistic was the inspiration behind Waterwhelm, a technology start-up founded by Ali Abbassi Monjezi that aims to turn wastewater into clean water while generating renewable energy.

“If you visit those villages in Africa, Asia and South America, you realise they have a lot of other problems, but the common factor that constrains them is lack of access to clean water,” says Dr Monjezi, who has a PhD is water engineering and subsequently completed three years of post-doctoral research.

The beauty of the innovative Waterwhelm technology is that it is self-powered, turning wastewater into clean water without any external supply of electricity or heat. At the same time, it taps into the chemical energy available in wastewater to generate renewable energy.

“We have a digestive system that is only about 25% efficient,” explains Dr Monjezi, who won the 2019 Converge Kickstart challenge with Waterwhelm, as well as Young Scottish Edge and the University of Edinburgh’s Inspire Launch Grow award. “The remaining 75% of energy from the food we consume ends up in the sewage. We tap into this hugely undermined bio-resource not only to clean the water but to generate renewable energy.”

With the world’s population growing at an alarming rate on a planet that is feeling the effects of climate change, the global opportunity for Waterwhelm is, says Dr Monjezi “huge”. However, it was when he moved to Scotland a year and a half ago to take up a position at the University of Edinburgh that he saw an opportunity to translate the idea he’d been working on for several years into a business.

“There’s a great ecosystem around entrepreneurship in Scotland, and there’s a lot of support available,” says Dr Monjezi, who originally hails from London, citing support he has received from Scottish Enterprise, RBS’s accelerator programme and the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.

Arriving in Scotland, he also found out about the country’s own water-related challenges. Lack of precipitation obviously isn’t one of them, but Scotland does have a lot of remote communities, with over 250,000 households not connected to the sewerage network.

“That has led to a lot of inefficiencies in the water industry because of the problems of transporting water to those communities and transporting wastewater back,” says Dr Monjezi.

Waterwhelm, which has been in operation for less than a year, is now at the point of building its first wastewater plan, which should be ready in 12 months. For reformed academic Dr Monjezi, the challenge in commercialising a what’s-not-to-like idea such as Waterwhelm is “to create a product in a short space of time without running out of money”. To meet that challenge, the company is now seeking investment, targetting private individuals, angel syndicates and venture capitalists.

In Scotland, Dr Monjezi hopes the Waterwhelm plants will make a compelling business proposition for the private companies that own much of the water network. Each plant costs £100,000 and covers about 40 households, meaning it pays for itself – with the possibility of selling excess energy to the grid.

Over the next five years, Waterwhelm hopes to provide 10% of the Scottish households that rely on septic tanks with its technology, while also offering a cost-effective solution to marginalised communities in developing countries where smaller-scale initiatives work well. Longer term, the ambition is to develop into an international business that can help save the environment.

“It takes a collective effort to save the environment,” says Dr Monjezi, who receives entrepreneurship support from RBS. “The big, hairy goal is to reinvent water supply.”