New Orleans, La. –
Sugarcane and shellfish are two things south Louisiana has in abundance. For one local company, they're also key ingredients in a new technology to clean up contaminated groundwater.
That company, NanoFex, is based in downtown New Orleans and it's bringing a process first developed by Tulane University researchers to the marketplace. The process essentially turns sugarcane and the waste of crab and crawfish shells into a material that breaks down dangerous industrial contaminants to make water drinkable again.
"We think there would be a lot of interest, not just locally for this material but also nationwide and internationally," says NanoFex CEO David Culpepper. "We really like that component of our technology, it's trying to convert waste byproducts into usable material, something that can actually improve our environment."
If NanoFex is successful, it could also be good for the local economic environment. And that's why this for-profit company got start-up help from the nonprofit Idea Village, a group that supports entrepreneurs in the New Orleans area. The Idea Village also runs the Water Challenge, an annual competition to identify business plans that address water management issues.
"The issues with coastal restoration, living with water, flood mitigation are huge, huge problems," says Idea Village CEO Tim Williamson. "I mean there's billions and billions and billions of dollars that's here to try to figure this out, which if you look at it the other way, that's an opportunity. It's reframing it as why don't we not only adopt and embrace living with water but why don't we look at this as an industry?"
Williamson says the beauty of the Water Challenge is that while tackling vital water management issues it also addresses another big concern here: creating new jobs. The premise is that New Orleans companies developing the technology, the tools and the know-how for water management can tap a global market of communities grappling with the same concerns while creating more jobs at home. It starts by deploying the competitive energy of entrepreneurs.
"So what entrepreneurs simply do is they identify a problem, they solve it, then they raise a bunch of money and hire a bunch of people to basically sustain a solution of that. So the simple question was: why don't we just ask entrepreneurs?," says Williamson. "The best idea we would provide technical assistance and capital and get started."
NanoFex won the competition in 2010, and now the Water Challenge is out to find more solutions from the household to the industrial level. This time, multiple winners will be announced in March during the Idea Village's Entrepreneur Week. But in addition to picking winners, the competition is also about seeding a new industry.
"We will build an environment that's going to encourage more people to try and that's really the purpose of the Water Challenge, to send a message to New Orleans saying let's look at this as an opportunity,'" says Williamson. "Let's start with one entrepreneur, maybe two, maybe three. But then we're going to create a network of the business community, of universities, of government that is here to support new individuals who want to come up with innovative ideas around living with water."