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State seeks to build water tech cluster

With dozens of water technology companies already operating in Massachusetts, political and industry leaders on Wednesday detailed a plan for building the low-profile sector into a global leader producing innovative products and services needed to satisfy the growing demand for water worldwide.

The proposal calls for the creation of a New England Water Innovation Network to connect firms with laboratories and operating facilities, such as the state’s Deer Island sewage treatment plant, to more quickly prove and commercialize new technologies.

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For instance, the plant might be a good place to test technology that detects toxins or other contaminants in water.

“If we could have access to real-world scale, actual test beds, we could do a lot better job preparing new technologies for market cheaper and faster,” Per Suneby, president of waste-to-energy firm BioConversion Solutions LLC and one of the executives behind the proposal, said in an interview Tuesday.

The idea for the network was developed by several executives and presented at the second Symposium on Water Innovation in Massachusetts at Northeastern University.

‘What we lack is just something to grab onto, and we’re trying to build that now.’

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While a still relatively small part of the state’s innovation economy, the water technology sector already generates roughly $4 billion in revenue.

Water technologies monitor, treat, and transport drinking water, storm water, wastewater, industrial water, and coastal waters.

The global water industry today is estimated to generate between $360 billion and $600 billion in annual revenues, according to separate analyses by the S-Network Global Water Indexes, which tracks the performance of companies working in the industry, and Lux Research, a Boston market intelligence firm.

It has the potential to grow bigger as water becomes an ever more precious commodity around the world as populations increase, putting more stress on clean, fresh water supplies. Water is used in many ways, from growing food to extracting oil and natural gas, and ensuring a sufficient supply is one of the central challenges facing the global community today, according to the United Nations and other organizations.

With nearly 300 Massachusetts companies, organizations, and institutions involved in water technology, according to the state, firms here could tap a large chunk of that global water market.

But first those companies and institutions must pull together as an industry, working to expand access to money, technical support, and other resources to commercialize products. That’s where the innovation network comes in.

Suneby said he expects the formation of the New England Water Innovation Network to take less than $10 million in upfront capital, which it could raise from government, corporations, and foundation grants. In addition to start-up costs, the money would cover the expenses of developing test sites at facilities like Deer Island, as well as equipment, lab services, and other costs.

Future funding, Suneby added, would come from membership and service fees and grants. “It’s meant to be funded by the people using it,” he said.

Much of the effort to build the water technology sector in Massachusetts has been led by industry executives, but the spark came from Governor Deval Patrick’s 2011 visit to Israel, a global water industry powerhouse, where drip irrigation and other breakthroughs were developed.

While he was there, Israeli leaders repeatedly told Patrick they were interested in working with Massachusetts’ water tech industry, but felt the cluster needed to mature more.

Speaking at Wednesday’s conference, Patrick said his administration was prepared to provide support to the emerging sector. In a brief interview following his speech, Patrick said he sees the government’s role in water technology as flexible — perhaps pushing legislation to jump-start the industry, as the state did with the alternative energy industry, or providing financial support, as with the life-sciences sector.

“It’s little interventions where the private industry tells us it’s helpful,” Patrick said.

State policy makers are already working through agencies like the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to help identify what needs to happen to make the state’s water cluster grow. The Clean Energy Center, for instance, recently hired a business development manager for water innovation to act as a liaison for the industry.

State Representative Carolyn Dykema, a Holliston Democrat, has proposed legislation to create incentives and pilot programs for water technologies. “These are all signs that the government is in,” said David Goodtree, an organizer of Wednesday’s water symposium.

Earl Jones, a Sudbury-based member of global investment firm Liberation Capital, headquartered in North Carolina, which funds clean technologies, agreed. These and other efforts are helping the water technology sector figure out how to “harness the assets that we have here to locally innovate and globally deploy.”

“What we lack is just something to grab onto,” Jones added, “and we’re trying to build that now.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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