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United Utilities: Innovation Lab

Programme Highlights

January 2021 will see the launch of the third United Utilities Innovation Lab, building on a successful partnership with the water and wastewater company which goes back to 2017.

Designed to make services safer, faster and cheaper for customers, the 12-week Innovation Lab places enterprising young businesses at the heart of operations at United Utilities headquarters in Warrington, UK. During the programme, these businesses work alongside senior executives to test their solutions in a live environment and explore opportunities for longer-term commercial partnerships. In addition to addressing key business challenges, the Lab provides insight into the breadth of disruptive technologies reshaping the sector while inspiring the sort of entrepreneurial mindset that accelerates progress.

“Interestingly, all the suppliers we are working with would label themselves as small or startup and five of them had never worked with a UK water company before  They all have a completely different energy to a large corporate like United Utilities, which is exactly what you need to disrupt the status quo.”

Kieran Brocklebank, Head of Innovation at United Utilities

The first United Utilities Innovation Lab was focussed on five innovation areas: connected water and customer; proactive customer actions; predictive asset maintenance; safe and healthy worker; and the catch all future of water.

L Marks’ Scouting Team promoted the Lab to 1500 businesses, making sure to target a diverse range of entrepreneurs, including those based in other countries or working in other sectors. Of the 80 applicants, 22 were invited to present their ideas at Pitch Day, with seven businesses selected to join United Utilities teams at the company headquarters’ Innovation Centre. The teams came from France, Portugal, Canada, Australia, India and the UK with five entering the UK water industry for the first time.


Launching in January 2021, the third United Utilities Innovation Lab will build on the successes of the first two programmes:


•Over the first two cohorts 90 United Utilities employees took part in the Innovation Lab by providing mentoring to one or more of the Lab teams.


•100% of the Lab teams ran live trials during the programme, with more than half of these leading to Framework Agreements.


•United Utilities Innovation Lab was awarded the “Supply Chain and Excellence Award” at the Utility Week Awards 2018. The Lab was recognised for making a difference in the way utility companies operate, collaborate and innovate to meet constantly developing consumer demand.


Canadian startup Emagin develops artificial intelligence tools to help facilitate and optimise decision making within the water industry. The team’s AI tool HARVI provides water and wastewater facilities with an operational intelligence platform supporting real-time decision making. In turn, it helps water companies become more reliable and better prepared for potential emergencies while driving down operational costs.


Emagin worked closely with United Utilities teams to gain insight into the specific challenges facing the network. The team was able to modify and tailor its standard platform offering, HARVI, with these insights, before running trials using data from the United Utilities network. The pilot trials were rolled out across different business areas in order to assess the live data analysis capabilities. At Demo Day, the team was able to project operational cost savings of over £200k based on one site alone.


It was recognised during the programme that Emagin had allowed United Utilities to achieve a 22% reduction in energy costs in areas where the technology had been trialled. Following the Lab, United Utilities confirmed a commercial agreement with Emagin for a scaled roll-out of HARVI across the network. With this agreement, United Utilities became the first water company in the UK to introduce large scale artificial intelligence into its operational systems. In December 2019, Emagin was acquired by US company Innovyze, with the team’s founding members taking VP positions.


Two of the teams from the second United Utilities Innovation Lab, FIDO and VAPAR, have been in the news recently:

•Now partnering with United Utilities to track down three billion litres of lost water, Oxford-based FIDO (Free Inserted Data Objects) has its work cut out. BBC has the full story. 

•Awarded AU$490,000 as part of the federal government’s Accelerating Commercialisation grant scheme, Australian startup VAPAR is now doubling down on its UK expansion. You can read more here.


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