State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

LAUNCH Water Sustainability Forum report from Tobias Siegfried

logo-launch-illustration1LAUNCH is a new initiative founded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), USAID, US State Dept, and NIKE to identify and support innovative work with great potential to contribute to sustainable solutions for many of the current environmental challenges.  The organization will coordinate a series of forums which bring together scientists, academics, policy makers and corporations to give a boost to promising start-up businesses and projects that might not otherwise garner as much attention.

Columbia Water Center Associate Research Scientist Tobias Siegfried attended the inaugural event March 16 – 18 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he served as part of the LAUNCH Council of advisers.  Below, he shares his impressions of the event and its relevance for the CWC’s work.

“LAUNCH contacted the Water Center, saying that they would like us as a participating partner to advise on new emerging technologies; identifying new emerging technologies in the water sector.  Last week I went as a representative of the Columbia Water Center, and there were many people from the State Department, there were a lot of people from USAID, there were people from NASA, there were people from the private sector like Intell, there were futurologists. Very smart, bright people who gathered.

“The idea was to gather and to give ten key innovative technologies advice on how they can start their businesses. We got involved in the process when we were asked to skim through a list of 150 to 200 projects and identify the top 10 key innovations which can help address the 21st Century water challenges.


“We ended up (at the forum) with the 10 projects that were identified, one of them being vertical farming, very smart vertical farming, where you have a closed system where water is recycled, temperature is controlled, the light, everything is computerized.  You have plants moving around on trays in three dimensions. (VertiCrop by Valcent Americas) wants to now establish rooftop installations in Manhattan and big cities.  They’re also looking into these options in the desert environment, for example in places like the United Arab Emirates.  The numbers they provided were really staggering.  They can reduce water consumption with the closed-loop, highly computerized, fine-tuned system.  They can for example reduce water consumption by 80% compared to conventional fields agriculture.

“There were also software developers trying to get their technology related to the provision of cheap and safe drinking water in rural poor Africa started.  There was a whole host of different water technologies – on the water/energy food side, but also on the drinking water side.  How can we provide safe drinking water?  How can we identify if the drinking water in a little stream or puddle is safe?

“There were people from academia, there were people who just wanted to get their start-up going.  They presented their projects and we were giving them advice.  Then in break-out groups, people from the USAID and government and industry were telling them how to improve their design, how to make their business statement stronger and that kind of thing.


“It was held at the NASA Space Center.  NASA hosted us – absolutely fantastic.  There were tours to see the Shuttle assembly hall, space shuttle Endeavor, there were very interesting tours to the launch pad.  It really gave us an appreciation of what an innovative agency NASA is.  We can learn a lot from them because they were always forced to deal with closed environments where you have to be as efficient as possible, to reuse every drop of water, for example at the Space Station, as best you can.

“The technologies that are used in outer space can also be used to address some of the problems related to, for example, irrigation efficiency or good filtration techniques, making safe drinking water, turning wastewater into safe drinking water.

“The question is always, is it going to be competitive from the perspective of cost?  This is ongoing research.  The technologies improve and the energy intensity decreases.”

Q: NASA’s interest in innovative technologies is apparent, but why was the State Department involved?

“There was the Department of State, and USAID, which is really an extension of US foreign policy by means of aid.  These guys are very interested in all the issues related to environmental change.  Political instability, security, development.  Democratic development and economic development.  There is this emerging perception by the US government that there is a crucial link between environmental conditions and economic performance, as well as security and political stability, so this is why they were there.”

Q: It seems like a lot of attention for just 10 projects, a lot of resources pulled together.  Why don’t they do 100?

“The LAUNCH initiative happened to be on water this time, but they have many more things planned in the future.  LAUNCH Climate, LAUNCH Sustainable Cities, and others.  This was like a first trial for them, to get things started so it’s not perfect yet.

“In the end the idea was to have 200 little project descriptions distributed to the resource partners, like us.  Have them ranked and assessed properly from the scientific and technical perspective for the promise they hold dealing with these grand challenges in the water domain.  And then the 10 most important innovations are given attention. You can’t have a two month process of giving advice to 200 projects.”

Learn more at the LAUNCH website.


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