Massachusetts has established a reputation for welcoming high-tech and life sciences companies. Now, state officials have their eyes on another promising sector, water technology, which aims to stretch, reclaim, and create water supplies to quench the thirst of growing populations in an increasingly warmer world.
The state is already home to a small water tech cluster of 93 companies and 5,200 employees, according to a report from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a quasi-public agency. Those numbers are growing fast, and the sector already has a multibillion-dollar impact on the state’s economy.
“It’s not an industry that many people have a high awareness of,” said Alicia Barton, head of the Clean Energy Center. But in 2012, she said, “we became convinced that this was a really smart investment for our state.”
Water technology isn’t a new industry in the Bay State. Some companies, such as the advanced filter maker EMD Millipore in Billerica, now owned by Merck KGaA, have been here for decades. But the Clean Energy Center says the sector is one that shows a high potential for growth. Water tech companies plan to increase their staffing by 7.9 percent over the next year, more than triple the growth rate of all Massachusetts employers, according to the center’s report.
The global water industry is estimated to generate revenue of around $600 billion a year. Massachusetts may not seem like the most logical place for a water technology industry to grow; drought-ravaged California, maybe, or the dusty oil and gas fields of Texas and Oklahoma would make more sense.
But the report said academic hubs like the Water Resources Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy at MIT could spin off ideas and skilled workers for the industry. Companies here can also have a broad client base.
Desalitech Inc., which makes highly efficient filtration equipment that allows companies to recycle more water, relocated to Newton from Israel in 2013. Its client roster includes power plants, automakers, and beverage companies with operations across the United States, according to chief executive Nadav Efraty.
“In the future, water is simply going to cost more,” Efraty said. “I think water will be just like energy, and people will save water for the same reasons they save energy now.”
Desalitech was one of the first Israeli companies to move to Massachusetts as part of an economic partnership between Israel and Massachusetts that the last governor, Deval Patrick, sought to foster. Water technology was viewed by Patrick as a key area of cooperation, and state agencies have been working on gauging the needs of the industry for years.
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center said it has received $800,000 from the state to help the industry grow. Barton said the money would be spent on projects that would benefit the entire sector, such as funding studies and creating a network of test sites for water tech companies to try their technology in near-real-world conditions, with sewage and waste water they can use to test their products and collect data.
Several testing sites for water technology already exist in the region, including one at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and another in Barnstable, and they could eventually be unified into a network that is funded by fees paid by companies, said Karen Golmer, executive director of a trade group called the New England Water Innovation Network.
“Some of this is happening, but what we want to do is pull it all together,” Golmer said.