Announcing the winners of the first Innovation in Water Challenge

21 Apr 2021

Wednesday 21 April 2021 – Innovations that turn ammonia in wastewater into green energy and use artificial intelligence (AI) or unexploited telecoms cables to detect leaks in the water network are among the winners of Ofwat’s inaugural £2 million Innovation in Water Challenge (IWC).  

Eleven collaborative initiatives led by water companies and involving a number of partner organisations, will receive up to £250,000 each to tackle the biggest issues facing the water sector in England and Wales.   

The winning entries, recommended by an independent panel of judges, include green initiatives such as planting and restoring seagrass meadows on the Essex and Suffolk coastlines, a scheme to turn ammonia in wastewater into green hydrogen gas, and software that can monitor the degradation of wildlife habitats. Other ideas focus on the prevention of leaks in the water network through the use of AI, CCTV, and unexploited optical fibre strands in telecoms networks, as well as using behavioural science to better support vulnerable customers. 

John Russell, Senior Director at Ofwat, said: “Innovation has the potential to drive a sea-change in the water sector and tackle some of the biggest challenges we are facing in society. Solutions that turn wastewater into green hydrogen and the use of artificial intelligence to detect leaks are just some of the cutting-edge winning initiatives that we hope will make a real impact in the coming months and mark the beginning of a new wave of innovation in the sector. 

“We were particularly pleased to see so many water company collaborations among the entries, and the winning proposal for the development of the sector’s Innovation Centre of Excellence will be crucial in driving future change. We are looking forward to the future rounds of the competitions and supporting even more transformative projects to fruition over the coming years.” 

Run by Ofwat and Nesta Challenges, and supported by Arup and Isle Utilities, the IWC was the first competition this year within Ofwat’s £200 million Innovation Fund. It is part of the regulator’s goal to create an innovative and collaborative water sector that meets the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment in the years to come.  

Chris Gorst, Director of Challenges at Nesta Challenges, commented: “It’s an important moment for the water sector, which must adapt and innovate to build a sustainable water ecosystem that benefits customers, society and the environment. We were delighted to see such strong collaboration both within and beyond the sector in response to this first Innovation in Water Challenge, and we look forward to seeing these innovations developed and adopted widely in the sector.” 

Rachel Skinner, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and chair of the IWC judging panel, said: “It was refreshing to see such a high standard of entries across the breadth of the water sector in this inaugural funding round. Taken together, the shortlisted entries provided a clear snapshot of the industry and its current challenges but also multiple opportunities for widespread transformation in diverse areas ranging from the urgent need for accelerated action on climate mitigation and resilience, to new ways to build value for customers as the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 play out.  They also highlighted huge potential for onward cross-sector learning and collaboration that will now be explored in detail. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the funded projects take flight.” 

We look forward to building on this strong start as we open the Water Breakthrough Challenge on 6 May 2021 and a further round of the IWC in Autumn 2021. 

The 11 successful entries and project partners are listed below. For an exciting opportunity to hear the winners talk about their innovative initiatives, join us on Wednesday 5 May at 9:30amRegister here. 

AI & Sewer Defect Analysis 

The AI & Sewer Defect Analysis project will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically recognise features in CCTV inspection of sewers. This will give a better understanding of sewer deterioration and reduce the cost of inspections.  

Project partners: Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water), Scottish Water, Severn Trent Water plc, Thames Water Utilities Limited, Water Research Centre, and Yorkshire Water Services Ltd. Led by United Utilities. 


CatchmentLIFE will build bespoke software that volunteers and experts can use, showing the impacts of habitat degradation on wildlife and ecological communities.  

Project partners: Bristol Water plc, Earthwatch Europe, Environment Agency, Loughborough University, Natural Resources Wales, SES Water, The River Restoration Centre (RRC), University of Huddersfield, and Wessex Water Services Ltd. Led by South East Water.  

Enabling Whole Life Carbon Design 

This innovation project will deliver the tools and processes required to support the cultural and behavioural changes necessary to deliver low whole life carbon and cost solutions and ultimately ‘zero carbon emissions’ as a water industry. 

Project partners: @one Alliance (Anglian Water, Balfour Beatty, Barhale, MMB, Sweco, Skanska and MWH Treatment|), Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water), Skanska UK PLC, and Sweco UK Limited. Led by Anglian Water. 

Industrial Symbiosis 

Industrial Symbiosis will look at new ways waste or by-product materials from one company can be used as the raw materials for another.   

Project partners: International Synergies Ltd, Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water), Jacobs, and Severn Trent Water plc. Led by United Utilities. 

Leak Detection using DarkFibre  

This initiative will use unexploited optical fibre strands in existing telecoms cables to detect and therefore prevent leaks in water and wastewater networks.   

Project partners: Costain Ltd, Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water), and Focus Sensors. Led by Hafren Dyfrdwy. 

Organics Ammonia Recovery 

The initiative will recover ammonia in wastewater and turn it into green hydrogen fuel – a first for the industry. 

Project partners: Anglian Water Services Ltd, Cranfield University, Organics Group, Warwick University, and Wood Group UK Ltd. Led by Northumbrian Water. 

Reservoir water community monitoring for algal associated risk assessment 

Reservoir water community monitoring for algal associated risk assessment will build on environmental DNA monitoring methodologies to detect algae in drinking water so as to improve the taste and smell.  

Project partners: Bristol Water plc, Cardiff University, United Utilities, and Yorkshire Water Services Ltd. Led by Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water). 

Seagrass Seeds of Recovery 

Seagrass Seeds of Recovery will restore seagrass and improve estuaries and coastal waters by increasing biodiversity and absorbing carbon and nitrogen emissions.   

Project partners: Anglian Water Services Ltd, Cefas (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), Department of Zoology and Wadham College, University of Oxford, Environment Agency, Natural England, Project Seagrass, Salix River & Wetland Services Limited, Swansea University and University of Essex. Led by Affinity Water.  

Smarter Tanks to build a resilient network 

This initiative will explore how to best monitor drinking water and rainwater storage tanks using real-time monitoring and control solutions, to see if more water can be stored when needed most, such as during extended dry periods or drought. 

Project partners:  Aqua Civils Ltd and University of Exeter. Led by Affinity Water. 

Supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances 

The involved partners will use behavioural science in its project Supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances to improve engagement with hard-to-reach customers and communities during planned and unplanned events, including help to manage bills and understanding which forms of communication customers prefer.    

Project partners:  Consumer Council for Water (CCW), South East Water Ltd and Thames Water Ltd. Led by Severn Trent Water. 

UK Water Sector Innovation Centre of Excellence 

A partnership between several water companies will lead the delivery of UK Water Sector Innovation Centre of Excellence (CoE) – a virtual innovation accelerator hub to promote collaboration in and beyond the water sector and drive transformational innovation. 

Project partners: Affinity Water Limited, Albion Water Ltd, Anglian Water Services Ltd, Bristol Water plc, Hafren Dyfrdwy, Irish Water, Northern Ireland Water, Portsmouth Water Ltd, Scottish Water, SES Water, Severn Trent Water plc, South East Water Ltd, South Staffordshire Water, South West Water Ltd, Southern Water Services Ltd, Thames Water Ltd, UK Water Industry Research Limited, United Utilities Water Ltd, Wessex Water, and Yorkshire Water Services Ltd. Led by Northumbrian Water.

Curious to learn more? Join us on Wednesday 5 May at 9:30 am to hear about these transformational initiatives from the winners themselves!