What happens when companies are open to collaboration?

A story of co-creation between a 160 years-old electronics manufacturer and a small startup, which resulted in an award-winning AgTech and WaterTech innovation transforming lives.

Boreal Light GmbH water treatment solution for rural communities
According to WHO report in 2017 there were 844 million people in the world who still lack even a basic drinking water service. 263 million of them spent over 30 minutes per round trip to collect water from an improved source (constituting a limited drinking water service). And 159 million people still collected drinking water directly from surface water sources, with the majority of them (58%) living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Now imagine that 85% of the water treatment (filtration) facilities delivered by the western donors in Kenya failed in the first 18 months of operations. We are talking about millions of dollars worth of aid and a country that has relatively developed infrastructure. A startup from Berlin decided to tackle this huge problem and developed a sustainable water desalination system that provides affordable drinking water as well as an irrigation system that can benefit communities living in the most remote locations. Their solution is truly transforming lives of these communities creating at least 3 jobs for every system, housing a library for children, providing a power outlet for mobile devices and soon offering WiFi connection.

Our solution was to develop a simple, yet fully sustainable system that would offer affordable access to water

says Dr. Hamed Beheshti a co-founder & CEO of Boreal Light GmbH, who brings years of experience in renewable energy projects across the globe.

WaterKiosk® by Boreal Light

The technology developed by Boreal Light allows for desalinating saline water at relatively low pressure, as opposed to the existing solutions built with high-end components. That renders the system’s maintenance affordable and accessible in the most remote places. According to dr. Beheshti, at least 70% of the entire system can be maintained (and fixed) with two basic tools that are available everywhere: a wrench and a screwdriver. The system is powered directly by solar energy (without using batteries) and affords the opportunity to connect it to a high power grid or to a generator in case of an emergency, what makes it highly desirable by development agencies such as Oxfam that is already using the solution in one of the projects in East Africa.

Apart from producing and selling the Winture® system to commercial clients (e.g. hotels, NGOs), the startup itself also invests in the WaterKiosks® and sells the drinking water directly to the local communities at a profit margin. In rural areas the WaterKiosk® sells the 20 litres jerrycan for $0.40, which is approximately 10 times cheaper than the average market price ($4-6).

Irrigation system by Boreal Light (Kenya, 2018)

The WaterKiosk® can simultaneously provide potable water and deliver irrigation water to a nearby farm (up to 10 hectares large). This makes it a simple yet powerful agriculture solution for the semi-arid areas, which are prevalent in the Sub-Saharan and East Africa regions. The water coming from a deep borehole (even 200 meters deep) is oxygenated by the system, which is a natural fertilizer that “can lead to yield increase varying between 5–96% depending on crop type and soil type”. The irrigation system is equipped with simple sensors that can release additional fertilizers in the right dosage when needed. Moreover, the by-product of the filtration (saline water) is a perfect disinfectant for sanitation and hygiene purposes.

What was meant to be a simple, sustainable solution became a catalyst for change. With each WaterKiosk® built the startup creates 3 permanent jobs and additional ones with the implementation of the irrigation system. Recently, one Kenyan community co-invested into their WaterKiosk® and shares the profits with the startup. In addition to this economic boost, it also brings some social benefits, as every kiosk is equipped with books for children, which all the kiosks exchange amongst each other every season. Soon the kiosks will offer a WiFi connection, which will make them a true community centres.

WaterKiosk® developed by Boreal Light (Kenya, 2018)

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Boreal Light became an award-winning startup recognized by the leading innovation hubs (Wageningen University, European Startup of the Year 2017), industry leaders (DIN Connect), and international organizations (World Energy Council, Startup Energy Transition Award 2018).

And here starts the story of a collaboration that made all of this possible in the first place…

The success of Boreal Light and its innovation would not have been possible without the collaboration with the experienced manufacturer Weidmüller.

The most important element of Boreal Light’s solution is the remote monitoring system developed in co-creation with the electronic manufacturer Weidmüller. Every system produced by Boreal Light is equipped with multiple sensors that can measure the quality of drinking water, the pressure of the irrigation system, the solar exposition and the amount of water sold. All this data can be monitored in real-time from any location in the world, be it the startup’s office in Berlin or Oxfam’s HQ in London; a feature that makes the entire solution a real game-changer. The remote monitoring guarantees transparency, which is vital for development aid programs and their donors. But it is even more important for the startup itself, as they can detect the technical problems in real-time and even prevent them based on the data they receive.

Dr. Beheshti (right) at Pioneering AgTech breakfast co-organized by SmartHectar (23.11.2018)

During the Pioneering AgTech breakfast hosted at the German Raiffeisen Association (DRV) Dr. Beheshti and Mr. Eike Schmidt of Weidmüller shared a story of their collaboration: how it developed, why was it successful, and in what ways it has benefited both businesses. The event featured their co-creation story to showcase how can established companies from the agri-food industry and startups work together and profit from the strengths of each other.

During the development of their solution, Boreal Light was seeking technical support in integrating the electronic sensors into their solar-powered water desalination system. After a few attempts with different competitors, they eventually reached out to Weidmüller.

Despite the fact that Weidmüller does not operate in the agricultural, nor African market, let alone in the development sector, and without significant sales incentive the company decided to collaborate with the startup.

The corporate offered the startup not only the required prototypes, but was also eager to support it with technical knowledge and expertise. The company assigned two engineers for an unlimited time and number of trips from North Rhine-Westphalia to Berlin (400 km) in order to support the startup in developing their product.

Thanks to their commitment Boreal Light was able to develop the prototype of Winture® system. Weidmüller, on the other hand, discovered that its products can be used in the completely new markets, which they have previously never explored (i.e. sanitation, water management, agriculture). The company will present the result of their collaboration showcasing Boreal Light at one of the major industry fairs in Hannover in April 2019 proving that their solutions can be used in a whole new market segment.

The corporate management of Weidmüller looked beyond a short-term return on investment and took a low-risk decision to assign human resources into a collaboration with Boreal Light, an early-stage startup. As a result, the company has discovered a new market segment for its products, which offers disproportionately larger benefits in the long run. At SmartHectar we strongly believe in the benefits of co-creation. Through combining the experience of established companies with the agility of startups we can tackle the global challenges as proven by Boreal Light and Weidmüller. (SmartHectar Innovation)

This story is a great example of why established companies should not be afraid to collaborate with startups, and why is it worth to look beyond the current market. New technologies and innovations developed by startups can also bring new business opportunities for the existing medium & large — size companies.

Boreal Light’s solution currently delivers clean drinking water in 6 locations across Kenya, with 20 more planned for 2019. 10 WaterKiosks® have been ordered and are being installed in the war-torn Yemen and Somaliland. The startup is scaling its operations to Western Africa and South America.

Pioneering AgTech brings together groundbreaking startups and established companies in the agri-food industry. With this format, Farm & Food 4.0 and SmartHectar Innovation, combine a global startup network and leading agri-food expertise to identify new products and technologies and enhance existing business models.

SmartHectar Innovation GmbH is the international hub for corporate-startup collaboration in agriculture, water, and food technologies. SmartHectar helps established companies to innovate by co-creation and matchmaking with startups. It offers a range of learning and executive innovation programs, provides scouting services and develops acceleration programs.