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United Utilities’ global hunt for game-changing ideas is back

The highly regarded ideas incubation programme has already successfully propelled many previous participants to international success and recognition.

Since its launch in 2018, more than 500 ideas, most of which are new to the water sector, have been submitted to the Innovation Lab. As a result, 30 ideas have been trialled and seven long-term commercial relationships have been forged, with benefit to United Utilities and the global water sector.

Australian-based company VAPAR is now working with customers in the USA, New Zealand, Australia and the UK after working with United Utilities to develop its artificial intelligence (AI) solution to semi-automate the review of CCTV inspection footage. Gloucester-based ChangeMaker3D achieved an industry first by using 3D concrete printed components to print and install a wastewater chamber; and FIDO Tech, the world’s only AI to detect water leaks and their size by analysing the noise they make is now operating globally since ‘graduating’ from the second Innovation Lab.

This year the company has introduced the Better Rivers category which is seeking sustainable solutions to support its river revival programme.

Mark Garth, Wastewater Treatment Director at United Utilities, explained why this is important: “Through our Better Rivers Better North West action plan, we’re on track to improve almost 200km of rivers by 2025. But we’re ambitious and we want to ensure we are harnessing the best cutting-edge environmental science to help us deliver sustainable solutions now and into the future.”

Now, Innovation Lab 5.0 is set to help even more innovative businesses grow and develop by giving them access to United Utilities’ vast expertise, resources and data to test, develop, improve and demonstrate their great ideas.

Kieran Brocklebank, Head of Innovation at United Utilities said: “The Lab has already delivered staggering results, not just for us, but for the water sector and of course for the companies that have taken part. Many have come to us from outside the water sector and from across the world.

“Our aim is to seek out exciting new ideas that have potential to transform the water sector either through brand new technology or by bringing existing ideas from other industries to the water sector. We’re always amazed at the range of ideas and the incredible talent and we’re looking forward to seeing what Lab 5 brings.”

Through the Lab, new ideas and nurtured and their development is fast-tracked to enable them to be trialled and adopted into United Utilities’ operations and ways of working.

Applications for the latest 14-week programme open on Monday, May 8 and interested companies have until July 2 to submit their ideas. A maximum of seven will make the grade.

Successful applicants will need to prove they have the potential to help the water sector serve its customers better and improve performance in several key areas.

  • Better Rivers
    United Utilities’ Better Rivers Better North West plan sets out a series of commitments to progressively reduce impact to river health and create more opportunities for everyone to enjoy rivers and waterways. This category aims to use innovation and cutting-edge environmental science to protect and treat rivers in a sustainable and scalable way. United Utilities is looking for ways to enhance monitoring, nature-based purification processes, wetland solutions and innovative ways to engage communities.
  • Low Carbon Construction
    United Utilities is set to deliver its most comprehensive large-scale construction programme and is keen to explore ways to reduce the carbon footprint of these projects. The company is looking for advanced ways to accurately calculate the carbon emissions associated with construction projects, utilise low-carbon, sustainable materials, create ‘greener’ construction sites, and innovative rainwater management solutions.
  • Water Efficiency
    There is a growing demand to save water through technologies that reuse and recycle water, enable intelligent irrigation and conserve water in homes and businesses. This category aims to discover new technologies and solutions to enable United Utilities to facilitate the reduction of water consumption for both domestic and business customers. The company is looking for technology that can be used in homes or businesses to reduce water usage but doesn’t rely on customers changing their behaviour as well as ways to raise awareness of water as a scarce resource and encourage customers to change behaviour through visualisation, better use of data or gamification.
  • Dynamic Network Management
    United Utilities has already implemented a pioneering ‘Dynamic Network Management’ (DNM) initiative to monitor its wastewater network. It wants to expand on the success of this by improving their asset condition monitoring capabilities with the aim of using data to control assets via remote communication. The company is interested in solutions that monitor asset condition, predict potential failures and apply collated data to automate decisions that prevent asset failure in both clean and wastewater environments.
  • Wildcard
    This category is truly open. The company is open to learning and being surprised by what new technologies and different approaches can do for them and their customers, employees and stakeholders.

As in previous years, United Utilities will deliver its Innovation Lab programme with corporate innovation specialist, L Marks.

Daniel Saunders, L Marks Chief Executive, said: “We are delighted to continue our long standing partnership with United Utilities with this year’s Innovation Lab.

“Building on the success of the previous four Labs, we’re excited to discover yet more new world-class ideas and potential suppliers. Innovation really is at the heart of what United Utilities does, and their commitment to nurturing and developing new technologies is evident in every Lab delivered to date.

“We look forward to seeing the success Lab 5 brings to United Utilities, and the water sector as a whole.”

Places on the programme are coveted, as successful applicants will be co-located and work hand-in-glove with United Utilities to test, develop, improve and demonstrate their product/service offering in a live customer environment over a 14-week period.

As well as getting the chance to test their ideas, participants are also given unprecedented access to subject matter experts and senior leaders. In previous labs, success in the programme has led to long-term commercial partnerships and ongoing product development.

Applications are open until July 2, 2023. For more information about the programme and the challenge areas, please visit the Innovation Lab website.