Water Valley Denmark aims to encourage collaboration and innovation within the Danish water sector and so increase export of technologies and help address global water challenges. Ulla Sparre, its chief executive, talks to Erika Yarrow-Soden.
Ulla Sparre recently became the first chief executive of Water Valley Denmark having been headhunted two years prior to that to lead its precursor, the Danish Water Cluster. With a background as an engineer in manufacturing management in the brewing industry, she had been working more recently in innovation and project management as a consultant for big Danish companies and some of the country’s water utilities.
“I think they hired me for my skills in innovation management and facilitating dialogue between different stakeholders,” says Sparre.
“I have a curiosity for new technology and emerging technologies, so I am always looking into how we can do things differently using new technologies, such as virtual reality technology, for example.
The case for combining forces
“Denmark has been leading on some aspects of water technology for a number of years. We are very proud of our wastewater systems and our clean drinking water supply. We have a lot of knowledge and some very good universities and researchers.
“Danish technology has a lot to offer the world, but we haven’t been good at telling the story as a combined sector. We thought that if we joined forces, we could stand better in the world and tell the story about Danish water solutions.
“At Water Valley Denmark we are working with utilities, businesses and universities to facilitate innovation. We are also looking at the world’s most pressing water challenges and working with stakeholders to find solutions.
Breaking down barriers
“When you have collaboration between organisations, technical teams are often very open and willing to share ideas. But business development teams can be more cautious, needing to have detailed information around ownership of data and patent rights. So, we still have discussions about how far we can go with regards to working jointly and respecting each company’s need for profit.
“Ten years ago, all the utilities in Denmark were privatised, meaning that they are still owned by the municipalities. They are hybrid organisations because they are run as private businesses but still have public obligations. This means that businesses and utilities are sometimes competing with each other. Therefore, we may have to discuss when it is most beneficial to compete and when it is better to collaborate.
“Ownership of a project often requires discussion. We are currently working on a very big data project, and we are seeing that the ownership of data is going to be a very long discussion.
“The better we can manage this balance between competing and collaborating, the better we can work together. We want to lift each other but change management will be required.
“Our ambition is to find solutions to some of the world’s water challenges and we see the delivery of Sustainable Development Goal 6 as a key driver for the work we do. A further driver is the Danish government’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030. So, we are really looking at a sustainable agenda, combined with a really hard commercial agenda. In Denmark, we have a strategy of doubling the export of Danish water technology and that has been an ambition for ten years. We are working to accelerate the export of our water technology and combining this with a sustainable agenda. It is about doing good and doing business at the same time.
“Where we have succeeded the most is in building trust between partners. People have been really open and really engaged within Denmark and now we need to build the next layer of international partners. That journey is just beginning.
“Also, we have secured funding in Denmark for the water sector. In Denmark, water and water technology has always been labelled in a box marked ‘environmental things’ and there hadn’t been much funding for water and water technologies. But we have just received funding from the government and we are seeing more funding coming in.
“Getting the funding is one target that we have reached, and we have built trust with stakeholders in Denmark, so the next step is to go internationally.
A focus on meeting needs
“Often the problem in innovation is that you build the smartest, the newest, but often people need something else. We are looking into our biggest export markets and finding markets and asking what is the biggest problem that needs a solution.
“In India we have started a collaboration with Pune knowledge cluster and we are trying to explore the challenges and potentials in India. Sometimes it isn’t technology, but how can we get funding for a project.
“What we have done in the last two to three years is gather our forces. While we would like to solve all of the world’s problems, it’s really not possible, so we need to focus on where we can make a difference.”
Strategic focus areas
Research and development: This R&D strategy aims to increase focus on innovation and collaboration within the Danish water technology sector. This includes:
- A PhD School
- Laboratory facilities
Start-up and incubation: A strategy aimed at strengthening opportunities for start-up companies through programmes and development facilities, including:
- A water laboratory
- A water accelerator programme
Innovation and large-scale projects: Creating opportunities to trial innovative technologies by:
- Building large-scale test and demonstration facilities
- Creating improved access to water data
- Establishing better opportunities for developing new digital business models
Water Valley Denmark projects
Data sharing platform
In collaboration with universities and SMEs the data sharing platform project will create an open data system to enable the water sector to innovate and streamline based on data.
Main activities include:
- Establishing a strong and efficient collaboration and governance model for the platform
- The development of an open digital platform
- Critical eco system analysis, disclosure and dissemination of research results
Water Living Lab project
The purpose of the Water Living Lab project is to create a digital test environment in connection with the drinking water system in Aarhus – Supply Area South.
Main activities include:
- The development of a digital twin prototype
- Integrating a data via data sharing platform
- Testing innovation concepts for forecasting / warning solutions
- Developing a blueprint for efficient and sustainable solutions
The purpose of the knowledge platform project is to create an overview of the large-scale test facilities that are available.
Main activities include:
- A requirements specification workshop
Water reducing project
The purpose of the water reducing project is to promote a green transition by encouraging collaboration between water technology companies and major water consuming companies, such as those in the food and biotechnology industries. The project will develop new sustainable solutions within water reduction, recycling and resource accumulation.
Main activities include:
- Matchmaking companies within the targeted industries
- Initiating collaborative projects
- Sharing knowledge
- Development of full-scale projects
The Spring is a new physical innovation district for water technology in Aarhus. The purpose of The Spring is to bring together entrepreneurs, SMEs, global companies, water companies, researchers and students working in water technology. In the next 10 to 15 years, The Spring will be home to more than 100 companies and knowledge institutions.
Water Valley Denmark’s key business targets
- Double Danish export of water technology from 20 to 40 billion DKK by 2030
- Contribute to the creation of 4000-5000 jobs
- Take part in creating a carbon and climate neutral water sector by 2030
More information: https://watervalleydenmark.com/