Water scarcity is an issue that is only going to spread. The World Health Organization has painted a bleak picture. They say that by 2025 more than half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. Finding new ways to provide the water that is needed to ensure our survival is crucially important. Dutch startup Sponsh did just that: they discovered a way to extract water from air! We spoke to Lourens Boot, the co-founder of this innovative company.
Sponsh: How does extracting water from air work?
Sponsh was founded in 2018 by Lourens Boot and Catarina Esteves. The company is working on a textile that has a smart coating, which looks like tiny arms that suck up water from the air when it’s cold. The fibres in the fabric swell up to 4 times their normal size. When the textile is warm, the water gets expelled and the fibres shrink. “It can be used for drinking water, irrigation, or reducing humidity levels in a greenhouse. At the moment we’re focusing on self-watering tree protectors. It works a bit like the silica gel packets that you find in packaging, but the major difference is that the textile releases the water when it is warm,” says Lourens.
“Water in the air is an unexpected reservoir. We have developed a sustainable and self-sufficient way to get water for people and plants,” adds Boot. “Additionally, it doesn’t require any infrastructure, electricity or energy and it’s affordable.”
The big idea
The idea popped up when Lourens was travelling with his family in Portugal in an RV during one of the hottest summers recently, in 2017. There were empty reservoirs and forest fires everywhere. “I noticed that when we woke up in the morning everything was covered in dew, even though the temperatures had been incredibly high,” says Lourens. “I had read the Blue Economy by Gunter Pauli in which a desert beetle collects water using nodules on its body and it made me think about what I could do to capture and utilise water from the air.”
He started to look at ideas and stumbled across Catarina Esteves’s research at the Eindhoven University of Technology. “I called her. She explained that she got weekly requests from people who wanted to buy the textile and would love to see this invention become a reality. She explained that she was not an entrepreneur and really liked her job at the university. So we decided to join forces to scale-up the material” says Boot. They started working together and Sponsh was born.
Planting trees to fight water shortage
Over the summer, forest fires in the Amazon became a focal point for individuals across the world. The images that were being shown were distressing and in many countries, a movement to plant trees was born. “Research shows that the most effective way to combat climate change is to plant trees. We need 900 billion trees to remove two-thirds of all the carbon man-kind put in the atmosphere so far,” says Lourens. His aim for Sponsh is to plant one billion trees with self-watering tree guards by 2040. “The impact would be huge. We could have a major impact on climate change,” he says. “It’s ambitious, but not impossible.”
Funding via subsidies and grants
When the company first started, they were reliant on their own money and various subsidies and grants. After winning first prize at the Blue Tulip Awards, then known as Accenture Innovation Awards, they received a subordinated innovation loan from the Rabobank “It’s a high risk, high impact loan which meant we could live another year,” Lourens says.
Winning the Blue Tulip Awards
Lourens already knew about the Blue Tulip Awards. “I’d already been to one of the finals as one of my friends worked at Accenture,” says Lourens “I saw all of the examples and showcases, and I thought it was one of the best awards I’d ever seen. It felt like a festival for innovators. When they opened up for entries in 2018, I thought, Why not?” Sponsh entered in the nutrition category and won. “I never expected that we would make it that far,” he says.
One of the biggest benefits they got from winning was media attention. “The validation and the buzz, combined with the media coverage was really impressive. It was great fun and a great journey,” Boot says.
Future plans for Sponsh
For the future, Sponsh wants to improve its product and test it in real-life situations. They weren’t happy with their first demonstrator so they are currently working on their second so that they can eventually take the textile to a commercial level. They aim to have the next demonstrator finished in the first quarter of 2020, and then test the product in Portugal.
Looking further ahead, Lourens says he has big plans. “We want to be able to run our first pilot on a large project and then move to commercial sales. That’s why we are talking with Land Life Company, an Amsterdam-based forestation company that won the Green Challenge Award.”
Blue Tulip Awards 2020 registration is open now
Lourens has a tip for new entrants too. “You have to learn how to pitch and you only have one minute to do it in. Focus on what your core message is and then practise your pitch a zillion times so it comes out without even thinking about it.”
Do you want to take part in the Blue Tulip Awards 2020? Do you have an innovative product or idea? Are you based in Europe? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then the good news is that there’s still time to enter your company or startup. The deadline to enter is November 17th, 2019. Find out more and sign up here to avoid missing out.