A research team from the University of Eastern Finland has succeeded in developing a device based on nanotechnology for measuring the metal content of water. Unlike other methods, the device provides a result immediately. The focus is on monitoring environmental risks, especially in waters where industrial effluents are disposed.
The story of 3AWater is fairly traditional in the world of high-tech startups. The roots of the product developed by the company lie in the Department of Applied Physics at the University of Eastern Finland, in a research branch that the core team of researchers started to commercialize. The research team led by Professor Vesa-Pekka Lehto has already spent decades examining ways to measure the metal content of water easily.
“We have managed to develop a portable device for measuring the metal content of water on-site. This is exceptionally fast compared to the currently used method where the collected sample is first mailed to a laboratory to be examined and you have to wait for days or even weeks for the result”, says CEO of 3AWater Tuomo Nissinen.
With 3AWater’s device, the result can be seen immediately and potential environmental risks, for instance, can be addressed without delay. Fast, accurate measurement is made possible by nanotechnology, which catches metal ions from the water samples.
“The original idea was to use nanotechnology for water purification. However, we realized that we would need to produce tonnes of expensive nanomaterial if we wanted to apply our innovation for that purpose. We started thinking about possible applications that would require less material. There are not many technologies out there for analysing water quality, so we ended up choosing that”, says Nissinen.
The product and the subcontracting chains are now just about ready. The company is moving from basic product development to the validation of the analysis method, which is a crucial part of the process. The validation determines the boundaries within which the technology works reliably. It is important to Nissinen to be able to provide reliable measuring data to customers.
The plan is to commercialize the product towards the end of the year. The analysis market of Finland alone will not be enough, but 3AWater needs to set its sights abroad in order to thrive. The leading global mining group, Rio Tinto, has already tested the prototype of 3AWater and the results have been promising.
The coronavirus has created challenges for the company’s global conquest. Customer acquisition has been difficult since visits to most companies are prohibited, and the closing of the university also hindered product development in Finland. 3AWater had to quickly move its operations from the university into its own facilities.
Obtaining additional funding has also been problematic due to COVID-19. The first equity investment in the company launched a growth spurt and boosted product development. Now would be the ideal time to build funding that would facilitate product marketing.
“We are looking for investors for a new funding round to further expand our operations”, says Nissinen as a tip for potential investors.
The systematic approach to work with a solid academic background has helped 3AWater drive its product development forward. However, Nissinen admits that the approach has also come with its challenges, such as becoming absorbed in research for far too long. In the world of business, you need to boldly take the plunge and drive things toward.
“You need a certain ability to tolerate risk if you want to head out into the world. You should also seek help as early on as possible and find out the preconditions and opportunities related to your project. They largely determine what you can and should do. This way, you will not waste time or try to achieve something that is not possible for practical reasons.”
3AWater received help from BusinessKuopio, for instance with identifying various funding instruments when the company was getting started. According to CEO Tuomo Nissinen, there is a lot of interesting activity in the Kuopio region for creating a cooperation network in the water sector. He hopes that these plans will also become reality in the form of functional environments.
The Finnish Government signed ecosystem agreements with Kuopio on 9 February 2021 to strengthen innovation activities in health and wellness technology and in water competence.
The strength of the Kuopio Water Cluster lies in its extensive competence profile. The Cluster is made up of six organizations, each a leading name in Finland in its area of expertise. Coordinated by Savonia UAS, the Kuopio Water Cluster harnesses this water competence to support the product development of companies. It is a unique body in Finland.
Text: Minna Akiola / English editing: Satu Heikkinen