Q&A: Venkee Sharma, president and chief executive, Aquatech

Venkee Sharma has been at the helm of US water treatment specialist Aquatech for over 25 years. In this time, the company has transformed from a regional manufacturer of industrial water treatment equipment to a major player in the global water industry.

Aquatech has a focus on addressing multiple challenges in water including resource scarcity, environmental pollution and the treatment of complex wastewaters through processes including desalination, industrial wastewater treatment, reuse and zero liquid discharge (ZLD). Mr Sharma explains the challenges and pivotal moments of his company’s impressive growth.

What are the origins of Aquatech?

The company was founded by Prem Sharma, my father in 1981 and we started out supporting the steel industry, which is not a surprise given our location in the US state of Pennsylvania. During the eighties, we started expanding our industrial base, moving beyond conventional ion exchange and wastewater treatment technologies towards more membrane based technologies.

When our father passed away suddenly in 1991, I found myself suddenly running the company at the age of 24. We were a fairly small company at that time, much like a start-up, with about 40 people. Fortunately, in the years to come I would benefit from the strong support of my brother Devesh and mother as partners in the business, my wife and family and the entire Aquatech team.

The early nineties was a recessionary period in the US, with a lot of development on the industrial side going overseas. We followed many of our customers around the world and started getting a global foothold. By the mid-nineties we were really focussed on wastewater recycle-reuse and we started developing our focus around zero liquid discharge.

In the late nineties, we also started research and development (R&D) of our own and it was clear to me that ZLD and what we would come to call minimal liquid discharge (MLD), which is really high wastewater recovery, were a very critical part of the future in the water industry. Our R&D has been focused on as the most important long-term technologies that we believe will play key roles in delivering valuable solutions to industrial customers.

What developments emerged in terms of technology?

In 1997 we licensed a technology called HERO – high efficiency reverse osmosis. Our vision was to integrate HERO with thermal technology to provide complete ZLD solutions, so we partnered with a company called Aqua-Chem.

Fortunately for us, Aqua-Chem decided to divest their water assets and become an energy company, so we bought the Aqua-Chem industrial concentration and desalination division in 2000. We then integrated the thermal technology with membranes as a primary concentrator and were able to gain the interest of almost any CFO at a power plant developer, as savings were meaningful and material in their financial performance evaluations.

The hybrid ZLD concept that we pioneered offered the significant value proposition of robust operation at a significantly lower lifecycle cost, namely the reduction of capital and operating cost of a large thermal system, which was possible by demonstrating that we could reliably preconcentrate industrial wastewater with a membrane system.

The power boom had started around the same time as our acquisition. Over the next decade we were able became the market leader in ZLD in the US with our innovative technology strategy.

While we were pioneering hybrid ZLD, we had a number of other technologies that were emerging at the core of our research and development (R&D), including membrane, thermal, and electro-chemical technologies. One of the first technologies to emerge out of our R&D was fractional electrodeionisation technology (FEDI), another was our ultrafiltration technology (QSEP).

Progressively, biological technology was added as we saw long-term convergence of biological, thermal and membrane technologies as part of the solutions to complex industrial water challenges. In our applied development part of R&D, we also developed numerous application specific proprietary or patented process solutions that integrated technology areas.

By the late-2000s Aquatech was developing meaningful technologies that could be offered in stand alone products, so we created the Qua platform to commercialise our technologies and deliver them to OEMS (original equipment manufacturers) around the world. Qua has a proven product portfolio today including electrodeionisation products (FEDI), hollow-fibre ultrafiltration products (QSEP), membrane bioreactor products (EnviQ) and ceramic ultrafiltration products (CeraQ).

From your experience, how does a small company get to that point where you can make a major impact on a segment of the market?

Aquatech has focused on serving industrial customers, particularly corporate customers around the world that have water challenges. Customers don’t buy technologies; they buy solutions wrapped in different business models adapted to the way they want to buy them.

We like to say that the foundation of Aquatech is all about water technologies and process solutions, and our business verticals are simply the way customers want to buy those technologies and solutions. Aquatech’s business verticals deliver our offerings wrapped in different business models including Complete Technology Solutions to meet capex needs, Integrated Water Services for operating facilities, Qua Products for the OEM channel, Energy Services for water management by-the-barrel for the energy industry and AQUIOS for long-term water sale agreements to industrial end-users.

We’ve been focussing on some of the biggest challenges in water like water and energy efficiency, oil & gas and resource recovery including brine management. We have deliberately remained very focused on industrial water, recycle-reuse (MLD) and ZLD. This focus helped us gain significant experience with many different types of industrial wastewaters and how they vary based on numerous variables including the customer’s manufacturing process and seasonal variations. A big area of focus has been helping our clients ensure consistent robust operation over a long period of time.

Underlying everything, we have a fabulous experienced team of people at Aquatech – including high level engineers, scientists, great project management teams and dedicated sales and customer service teams. We have a strong performance record of over 1,600 major installations in over 60 countries and our team has obviously played a key role in our success.

I would now consider the company to be a medium-sized player, but we offer complex solutions and unparalleled experience in understanding and treating some of the most difficult to treat waters in the world. Our customers include some of the world’s most recognized companies. The advantage of being a mid-sized company is the ability to be entrepreneurial and take decisions quickly.

Did Aquatech’s willingness to execute projects internationally play a part in your success?

We followed our customers overseas in the early ‘nineties and we were doing projects throughout South-East Asia, the Middle East and in India. India was intended to be a regional support for our activities in Asia and the Middle East and although some of our senior management have Indian family heritage, including myself, we really didn’t know that much about business in India. We picked the wrong city to start, made all sorts of presumptions and didn’t get settled till 1996.

We realized that we were doing lots of projects overseas and the business wasn’t going to be sustainable long-term without a “regional home market” mentality and that’s what we started building in the 2000s. The subsidiaries started to mature to the stage that they were able to execute complete projects and do more regionally.

As a mid-sized company, we were in a constant battle between expenditure in sales force and globalizing versus technology and service solution development, so we had not become as deep in terms of global infrastructure and reach, as we wanted to be.

Eventually, we were presented with a great opportunity to partner with one of the largest global water leaders, Nalco Ecolab. Our technology and solutions portfolio had tremendous apparent synergy with Nalco’s chemical and services capabilities, global reach and strong corporate relationships. The strong synergy eventually drove the partnership that we believe will deliver tremendous value to industrial corporate customers.

Where do you see the fastest growth coming from in the next decade?

Our vision is around helping our industrial clients make water a pain-free issue. Having all of the tools such as process technology, chemistry, automation, managed operations and above all, experience – are the cornerstones of the strategy. Emerging issues such as the internet of things (IOT) and preventative/predictive diagnostics will also be extremely important. Pain-free will require constant real-time information and feedback.

We’re very bullish on MLD and ZLD in general across industries. It varies depending on which geographical region you’re in. We prefer areas driven by water scarcity, which drives MLD, which you backend into the need for ZLD. We are also very focused on brine management and treatment technologies. The business we like to be in is where we’re helping our customer meet their performance goals and make money, not one that’s strictly driven by regulation.

When you look at the rising cost of water around the world, the water stressed areas, changing demographics, and you look at our customers in these stressed areas with changing demographics, that’s where a lot of the growth opportunities are going to be.

What is the advantage for Aquatech in taking part in BlueTech Forum?

We’re focused on water technology and addressing tomorrow’s needs and challenges with technology. We want to be engaged in the dialogue around emerging technologies and we want to make sure we’re aware of everything that’s going on. We also want to hear what end-users’ needs are so that we can tailor our solutions for them. BlueTech Forum is an excellent place to do that.

BlueTech Forum takes place in Dublin, Ireland on 6-7 June 2017. Venkee Sharma will deliver a keynote address and take part in a roundtable on zero liquid discharge (ZLD). Managing brine and challenges and opportunities in the ZLD continuum is one of 14 chaired Water Technology Roundtables taking place at the event.