How Lithium Refining & Water as a Service spark Growth for a Family Business

Aquatech is in business for 40 years, yet it is on the verge of taking a new dimension through two spectacular contracts in lithium refining: Lithium America’s Thacker Pass and Controlled Thermal Resources’ Hell Kitchen. Couple it with the company’s rise in Water as a Service (30% of its revenue today, soon to reach 50%) and you’re in for an explosive mix! Is Aquatech an untold water unicorn? Let’s explore.

(Also check my entire Lithium deep dive!)

with 🎙️ Devesh Sharma – CEO at Aquatech

💧 Aquatech helps the world’s most recognized companies solve important water challenges such as lithium refining, desalination or food and beverage.

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Full Video – Devesh Sharma sits down with me at the BlueTech Forum 2023

Teaser 1 – How Lithium Extraction is Reverse ZLD and how Aquatech is Geared for This

What we covered:

💡 How Aquatech is a Private Powerhouse in Industrial Water Treatment You Need to Know About

🏗️ How Aquatech delivers complex projects and how they tackle challenges in remote locations

🌟 Why Being the Best Matters More Than Being the Biggest: Aquatech’s Winning Philosophy

🤝 How Aquatech and Ecolab Join Forces in a Strategic Partnership and how the company maintains a balance as a middle-sized global player

📈 Impact Metrics Unveiled: Aquatech’s CEO Shares the Key to Their Success

🌍 Energy Transition and Green Revolution: How Aquatech is Shaping the Future, and how that involves lithium endeavors

🏭 How Aquatech won North America’s most-awaited lithium refining contract at Thacker Pass and how they won Lithium America’s confidence on the way

🎯 Planning for Success the Company’s Short to Medium-Term Goals

🚀 Game-Changing Projects: From Trash to Jet Fuel – Aquatech’s Mind-Blowing Endeavors

💧 Water Technology-as-a-Service: The Future is Here, and Aquatech Leads the Way

🔮 How Reuse and Digital Revolution might be The Next Big Trends in Water

💬 Aquatech’s Secrets to Effective Communication and Recruitment, and how you could Join the Aquatech Family – exciting endeavors ahead?

💰 The importance of in-person connections, multitasking overload, ensuring modularity, creating memorable moments for employees – that feel like family, identifying the right growth opportunities, measuring impact… and much more!

🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥 

Teaser 2 – Could Brine Mining become the Next Frontier in Lithium Extraction?


🔗 Come say hi to Devesh on LinkedIn

🔗 Check Aquatech’s website

🔗 This podcast was produced in partnership with BlueTech Research, recorded from the BlueTech Forum 2023 in Edinburgh

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is on Linkedin ➡️

Teaser 3 – How Water as a Service already represents 30% of Aquatech’s turnover and soon more

Teaser 4 – Aquatech’s motto: Being an entrepreneur is like a bicyclist you gotta keep peddling or you’re falling down

Editorial: The Fine Line that Aquatech Mastered

There’s a fine line between risk-taking and putting all you have at stake, between perseverance and obstinacy, and between grit and recklessness. And it’s only when the dust settles that you’ll know on which side of the line the ball decided to fall.

When I started my career in the water industry, veterans were telling me: keep your fingers off the industrial market. It’s a “who’s the cheapest” game, and they’re so short-term-minded that it’s depressing.

Yet, at the same time, these veterans opted out of the industrial game; Aquatech was created as an almost pure-play dedicated to that very specific end of the market. Risk-taking or putting all you have at stake?

A couple of decades later, and long before it was hype, that same Aquatech ventured into Water as a Service to speed up the adoption of its technologies. Perseverance or obstinacy?

And while the world of Water consolidates in a fashion we’ve probably never experienced before, Aquatech trusts it can keep growing and build its path as a private, family company. Grit or recklessness?

The Water Industry is rapidly changing

Well, I don’t have all the answers, but what I can tell is that as the dust settles, the industrial end of the Water Market is the one thriving right now, as it’s faced with the hottest challenges ever, which in turn generate new opportunities.

And as Devesh will explain in a minute, 30% of Aquatech’s revenue today comes from its Water as a Service; said differently, they have a 30% – probably high-margin – annual recurring revenue with a plan to expand it to 50%. That’s a ratio that kind of turns a hardware company into a software/tech type of play. And with that mix, Water suddenly becomes a much more scalable business – as we’ve seen with Gradiant recently turning into the water sector’s first unicorn.

Well, Gradiant and Aquatech are certainly not the same, but they have similarities in the technologies they develop and the markets they serve. And Gradiant claimed its unicorn status, thanks to a 225 million dollar series D raised at that billion-dollar valuation.

Is Aquatech a Water Unicorn flying under the radar?

I’m throwing Gradiant in the discussion here because we’re debating the possible next steps for Aquatech with Devesh today.

And my napkin calculations and estimates indicate to me that Aquatech is probably already a unicorn, given its revenue mix, proprietary technology, and turnover somewhat double of Gradiant’s. Take it with a pinch of salt; none of these companies are public, so it’s pure guestimates.

Now, I mention dust settling, and I’m using that metaphor on purpose. Because Aquatech was chosen by Lithium Americas to build the lithium refinery at its upcoming Thacker Pass lithium mine, which is extracting this “While Oil” from clay, so settled dust. And Aquatech has the perfect portfolio to take on this 2020s challenge because it tripled down on industrial water and zero liquid discharge since the 1980s – something we’ll dive into much deeper with Devesh in today’s conversation.

Finally, I think Aquatech’s story is inspirational on many more levels. It’s also the tale of a family business, taken to its today’s shape and successes by two brothers that were respectively 24 and 14 when they took over. So let me avoid spoiling everything, and leave the floor to Devesh, just after reminding you that if you like what you hear, please take this episode and share it with a friend, a colleague, your boss, or your team, and also don’t forget to subscribe. Come on, do it, and I’ll meet you on the other side!

Teaser 5 – Could M&A or IPO be the next steps in Aquatech’s path?

Full Transcript:

These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂

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Antoine Walter: Hi Devesh. Welcome to the show.

Devesh Sharma: Thank you, Antoine.

Antoine Walter: I’m excited for many reasons to have that conversation with you. I’ll save it for the second part of the interview because you might have big news to commence.

There’s much more about Aquatech, but before we jump into that, I have a traditional on the microphone, which is to open with a postcard. So what can you tell me about the place you’re usually at when you’re not in a deep bar sitting down with me, which I would ignore by

Devesh Sharma: now. Aquatex headquarters is, and my birthplace is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

So the postcard is from Pittsburgh. We love to have you over our headquarters one day. Pittsburgh’s a beautiful city. It’s a city of three rivers and the home of my Pittsburgh Steelers. You are

Antoine Walter: leading a quite special company in this quarter space for different reasons, but my first question is it a family

Devesh Sharma: business?

That’s a good question. I think it is a family business, but in more ways than you think. The company was started by my father. In 1981 in Pittsburgh, he was always a water engineer. Late fifties, graduated from college in India. Moved to the US and Canada in the late sixties, and was always working in the water industry and settled down in Pittsburgh and decided to start his own company.

10 years into it, he had an untimely passing. In 1991, he passed away. And Vanke, my brother, took over at the age of 24. I was 14 at the time. So from that point of view, we’re a private company and very much a family business. But I think in the second way, it’s more interesting in that we’ve grown over 40 years with a amazing management team.

I talk to people every day that have been with the company over 20, 25, 30 years, and we wouldn’t get to this level. Without them. That feels like a family. I’ve worked with people closely longer than I knew. My dad, from that point of view, we’re very much a family company. What would be your

Antoine Walter: elevator pitch to Aquatech, to someone who would ignore what Aquatech does?

I’m not sure if there are still people who ignore what Aquatech does, but in

Devesh Sharma: case elevator pitch, let’s see. We solve water scarcity challenges. We help some of the most recognized companies treat their water. Water and process technology is at the heart of what we do. We’re at our best when we can solve complex water challenges, and that’s what really what we’re all about.

Some statistics 2000 installations and 60 countries. As I said, 42 year old company. We’re really proud of the stability. In this fast moving market, we’ve always had the same ownership for 42 years, and very proud of that.

Antoine Walter: Actually, yesterday I was sitting down with ra, we are here at the BlueTech Forum in Edinboro.

When I looked at the website of ra, there’s five products. I did the same exercise with your website and it’s the total opposite. It’s every single technology I could think of. It seems like you’re doing it. How do you manage to have such a broad portfolio? It’s

Devesh Sharma: exhausting sometimes, but the best recognition you get is what others say about you.

Maybe over 10 years ago, there was some article, it was something that Gwi published about us. It basically said that while others promote what they know, Aquatechs clients can be assured they’re gonna get the best solution for their need. I looked at that and I said, geez, I. Couldn’t have said it better.

That’s what I think, but the words came out from somebody external, and that’s our brand promise. Every corporate presentation I give, I end with that quote. I really want to live through that quote. And for that, water is hard. It’s never just one thing. It’s always a combination of processes to meet a process guarantee, to meet an objective.

I think we’ve done a great job developing deep knowledge and experience in many different processes to put them together to reach that goal for our clients, and that’s really that kind of superpower, secret sauce. That’s what makes us different. When speaking

Antoine Walter: with sea level people in the water industry, it’s always an amazing conversation, but sometimes they just came from a different industry and started directly.

At that stratosphere, it’s not your case. You’ve been built through the various roles and positions within Aquatex. So what did you learn on that path? A ton. I

Devesh Sharma: love the way you asked the question because I’m gonna come back to the outsiders that have come into our industry, but I’ve had the.

Fortunate opportunity to really work in every part of the business. I’ve bid projects, I’ve managed projects. I have to start at the beginning. The most memorable, fun, biggest learning was when nothing’s better than when you’re at a job site commissioning. Yeah. All right. Yeah. Yeah. Commi commissioning and I feel for our.

Own young engineers. It’s so important to get them out to the site because everything is theoretical. You can get a P N I D and you can look at valves and pumps all day long and do calculations, but until you visualize it in the field and you understand how everything comes together, I thought that was invaluable.

It’s also working under pressure. I have this little frame, picture on my desk. It was from the summer of 96. I was at a job site in India. I was in college at the time. It was a summer. We had to meet a commissioning schedule and. I’m standing there with the team and we have a little notepad. It says, two gas turbine.

We did this we commissioned the water. They got to do their boiler blowdown, their startup of their boiler. The feeling you get when you’re on site is unmatched, and the experience you get is unmatched. How about the outsiders? It’s a blessing and a curse. Sometimes you’re too in it. I always admire the perspective of somebody who comes into the industry with no sacred cows.

And just ask fundamental questions. There’s a lot to be said about that too, and we’ve seen some success stories there as well. So I always try to give a balance thing. There’s some advantages with that as well. I think you’re

Antoine Walter: absolutely right. The best situation is the combination between the two words.

I’m often told that the two. Positions where you learn the most about the, what industry is commissioning as a said and project manager, because the project manager’s be the CEO of his project. So it’s a way to learn how the company looks like, and then you right, as well, when you come from the outside, you don’t know what’s impossible.

So basically everything could be possible and everything is questionable. So interesting perspective talking Aquatech, if I’m right, you’re more focused on the industrial side of the business. Very much is that true?

Devesh Sharma: Very much we’ve always been very focused on industry. We love working with industrial clients.

It’s what we’re good at. It’s where complex water technology is needed the most. We have ventured into municipal and infrastructure because of desalination and water reuse. So really that is a vertical for us is desalination and water reuse where we do get into outside of industrial. But at our core, we’re really 90 plus percent in industrial water treatment

Antoine Walter: company.

But that’s a daring. Move to start a company with this industrial target at first, because you mentioned it’s a 40 years company. 40 years ago, water wastewater, the treatment for industrials was much seen as a cost of being business. You really took it from the north face. If I want to take a, an LP is metaphor.

Devesh Sharma: Yeah. And you know it’s a, hindsight’s always 2020 when you look. Back. There’s four decades of evolution of aquatech. When we started, we talked about Pittsburgh. We were doing filtration and demineralization for steel companies. The highest level, if you distill our company, we started by taking pretty clean water and making it very pure or ultrapure for industrial use.

And that’s what we’ve done for most of our journey for 40 years, is just the water’s gotten worse and worse and worse. So in the eighties, we really embraced the concept of an integrated solution where a lot of companies were just specialized on demineralization. That’s a personality of Aquatech is getting into these technologies.

So we got into ro, we got into pre-treatment. We said companies used to bring out packages and say, we want a demineralization plant. We want a. Pre-treatment plant. We want a polishing plant. And we said why don’t we do all of these? So the eighties was really around integrated solutions and that came early in our journey.

The nineties was international expansion. We were at that time very focused on greenfield. So somebody’s building new. Plans weren’t building many of those in the United States, so we followed suit. And for a company of our size at that time, I thought we punched way above our weight class, where we started subsidiaries in the nineties, in India, in China, in the late nineties, in the Middle East, and developed a great, a global capability to source to be present.

To support our clients around the world. I think late nineties to 2000 to 2010 was about technology. It was about doubling down, re initiated r and d efforts in the late nineties. And what came out of that was our division called Quad, where we do membrane products, uf fractional electrode ionization, mbr.

Ceramic membranes and our own applied testing and development laboratories, which is critical today and has brought us a lot of success in partnering with our clients. And really that fourth decade has been about expanding our capabilities, heavy focus on service because of our focus on total cost of ownership and.

Operating planes well when required. Doing an EPC wrap and doing more for our clients and really evolving to taking all of that technology and service capability and really ideally trying to sell water to the client. Water technology as a service.

Antoine Walter: There’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with that last section, which is you could be an EPC if needed, but you’re rather transforming into a service company with water as a service if you have to really put you in a box.


Devesh Sharma: are you today? Technology and service. And they go together because you have to design a plant as it would be operated maybe 40 years ago when we started, we were a manufacturer. But we’re really technology and service. Technology and service. Technology and service. What

Antoine Walter: is a service is extremely trendy as a concept and as a buzzword, how much of your turnover is it

Devesh Sharma: today?

Last year in 2020 was about 30%. Wow. And we’d like to take it beyond 50.

Antoine Walter: What was your first. What is a service project?

Devesh Sharma: I love that question because I wanna stress that maybe we’re doing more external marketing of that concept, but we’ve been doing this for many years. I remember it was a very famous company refinery in South Asia.

Should I try to guess or I didn’t come prepared to know whether I should make names. No, don’t worry. I think you could guess. We were promoting industrial reuse, and this was in early two thousands, so it was not. The commonplace thing that it is today. So we had a unique technology. We piloted this technology and other refineries in the country.

We had great pilot reports and this company came to us and they said, we want do this. We’ve seen your pilot studies. We don’t need to do a pilot. We want to implement this, but it’s new technology. We want you to own an operated. We said, oh my God, we can’t do that. We rebuild plants. We just supply plants.

After a couple weeks. It was evident to us that we’re not gonna implement this project unless we. Take the gulp and do it. I think it’s one of the top three to five most successful things we’ve ever done as a company. We ended up doing it. We ended up owning and operating it. We ended up expanding it twice to four times this, the size.

When we were negotiating it, the client said, we’re gonna have a buyout sketcher. Once you operate this, once you show this, we’ll buy it up. Then about two years later, after we. Did the expansion. We were having dinner and we were talking the client asked me, he says, Daves, why do you think we now expanded this again on a build don’t operate?

And I said I think you find it easy. You don’t have to go, it’s all opex. You don’t have to go through a CapEx cycle. I said no. Our cast of capital is very low. We have a lot of CapEx, but. Our refinery is very unique. It’s one of the most adapting in the world. And every time a new ship comes with a new source of crude, two weeks later through, as it goes through the process, the wastewater fluctuates.

And it’s very challenging. And we know that. And we see the pain you take and your people take to keep this plant running. And we don’t think we can do

Antoine Walter: that. So if I try to check, if I understand you right on that one, that means it was about technology adoption at first. Yes. And they wanted to de-risk.

The fact that they were working with you. So that was the icebreaker. And then the reason why you’re still operating as a service is because you have an operation excellence, which they don’t have in-house. So it’s a win-win. Yes. That’s an interesting setup. We are at the BlueTech Forum. I mentioned that yesterday.

There was a discussion around how to adopt innovation faster and how to speed up. That was 12 to 16 years it takes for technology to be in the middle of the market. Would you say that what is a service as the perfect tool to do

Devesh Sharma: that? You couldn’t have said it better it absolutely is, because the value proposition is go to a reputed partner and don’t get into what is the technology.

Know that you have a company that has. Decades of experience and is gonna give you process guarantees. We’re getting back to the secret sauce or what differentiates us. I’d like to print a sweatshirt that says Meeting process guarantees since 1981 that really summarizes Aquatech and that moment was the aha moment is that finance in water as a service is secondary.

It’s really about taking the client’s pain away. I love this question about the 16 years or the 13 years cycle and my dream. Is, how are we going to shorten that in this industry? And I think this way, the water technology, that’s why we don’t say water as a service. We say water technology as a service.

And I think that’s one of the objectives.

Antoine Walter: I have a question on the process Es, it might be a tricky question, you’ll tell me. I was taught about waste for the treatments by a early in school, but what you learned in school goes a certain way. Then I learned it in the field and I learned with two of my very first guests on that podcast.

So the number one podcast, the first one, and number four. So Lauren de. And ka, and what I learned with them is that one of the big skills you need to have in water and waste for the treatments is learning how to write process quarantine. Because if you write them right, then they will never apply.

Devesh Sharma: It is a balance of risk management, but we don’t say process guarantees.

We don’t take that very lightly, that’s very serious. That’s at the end of the day what the client needs. That’s also why we work with industrial clients, because you talk together, you partner together, you know you have a design basis. It’s very tough and you can’t build a credibility and reputation in the industry.

If you’re gonna be a company that goes out there and says, aha, this isn’t here, this isn’t there. At the end of the day, you gotta perform whether. You can get out contractually or not. 50% of our business is repeat business.

Antoine Walter: That’s was gonna be my question because Yeah you’re absolutely right.

You can trick someone only once and once you’ve done that, and in this industrial world, as you said, if you’re building with a company in the US your business plan and your go-to market is to follow them when they’re expanding in the next country. Exactly. And if you cheated them on the first project, then there’s no second project.

So that would be. Stupid and you don’t seem to be like a stupid person at all, so thank you. Just curious, you mentioned how you are also working AT getting innovation faster in the market. What is your coolest innovation of the past five

Devesh Sharma: years? Two come to mind. We’ve always been in zero liquid discharge.

20 years ago it was a niche. Today, 80 plus percent of our business comes from Mld Z L D or Brine Management In the process side. Okay. Before we got into the industry, zero discharge was. A big evaporator, highly metallurgical, high opex, high CapEx. We’re very proud of an innovation we brought to the industry, which is hybrid zero liquid discharge.

I think we were amongst the first, I’d like to say we’re the first, but I’ll say amongst the first to prove that you can operate RO highly efficiently on. Difficult to treat Wastewaters reliably, thus increasing the recovery through a membrane system and then shrinking your thermal system. It was so successful we ended up buying a thermal business called Aqua Chem at the time, and really being a single source provider for zero discharge, but zero discharge has always been relatively, More costly and the mission is how do you reduce the cost of zero liquid discharge?

How do you democratize zero liquid discharge? So for smaller flows to avoid trucking off of site, what can you do? Our r and d team developed membrane distillation process. We call it A V M D, advanced vacuum membrane distillation. There wasn’t a V there for a while because tinkering and working in r and d.

So what? Membrane distillation is, it’s a hydrophobic membrane, so you’re drawing the water in a vapor form across the membrane, and the membrane kept on following. Our process takes the best of our knowledge from how evaporators work and heat management, and we have a vacuum that, that draws.

Basically the membrane surface is not wedded. Last night we got a lighthouse award for that. We’ve applied this in a pharmaceutical plant. Smaller flows, but very impactful industries. And this is reducing the cost of zero liquid discharge. I think another one that really comes to mind is our approach on digital and operations.

We have a product called Biofilm Pro, which is aimed at integrating sensors, little bit of chemicals and some proprietary. Devices and AI and machine learning to predict biofouling on heat transfer surfaces and real time apply the right solution to curtail it before it fests. Do you do that

Antoine Walter: alone or do you team up with smaller players, universities,


Devesh Sharma: That is a really good question, Antoine. Our journey, when I told you we started our technology efforts in the late nineties, we licensed a lot of technologies. We acquired a company, it was heavily, you could say, external. And once we saw how successful tech technology and applying unique.

Differentiated technology can be. We invested a lot and got a lot out of our r and d. We created a membrane company out of it. We have 25 patent families. The ship went into the other direction where it was a heavily intern. I think today we’re more balanced where we have a lot of applied testing.

We have our continuous r and d, and we pick and choose projects of what we can do, but. We also are very cognizant that there are just a lot of innovators out there moving much faster than we can ourselves. And back to that ethos is we’re not the company that says we’ll only do it if it’s homegrown. We have to find the right solution for our clients internally or externally, and there’s a real balance of that.

So we do, I think our ability to integrate and wrap and provide process guarantees and be confident of that makes us a great partner for some of these young company innovators out there. That have a very good. Solutions that, that fit that process. Floki,

Antoine Walter: you mentioned your Lighthouse award, which you got yesterday.

Congratulations. Thank you on that, what does innovation for impact mean for

Devesh Sharma: you? Oh, loaded question. Wow. Okay. I think innovation for impact we are all in. I heard somebody say that, I can’t take credit for this, but I was at a panel last week at gws on energy transition and the closing statement was, let’s face it guys.

There’s no green without. Blue taking all of our skills. Now we’re very focused on supporting the energy transition, so that’s a bigger goal. A broader impact is we’re really going all in our industry verticals on decarbonization, energy transition, carbon capture we’re working in right now, biofuels, lithium, and critical minerals and hydrogen.

I think innovation for impact means making a commitment. To the company to support the energy transition the world needs and being at the forefront of that. So that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

Antoine Walter: I would be incredibly curious to explore every of those verticals, but I have to pick some because I need to be cautious every time as well.

So I’m very curious about the lithium one because I just, So that you got awarded the contract for the lithium refining at THCA Pass. So to give a bit of context for the ones that would not have followed all the lithium stories in the US today, the US produce a little bit of lithium in Neda and that’s about it.

And they are plans. To produce much more. I had standard Lithium on that microphone to discuss that project in El Dorado. But that’s the cool key on the block, direct lithium extraction. There’s the traditional ones which is going more into mining and emblematic project of mining in the US is FCO Pass.

And everybody was looking at that thinking if FCO Pass doesn’t make it, then nobody will make it. So there was. Awaiting on that project. I think it’s develop by Lithium Americas. Yes. Usually the usual suspects in the lithium refining for these kind of plants are Veolia, H P D Koch engineers, and that’s about it.

Cause AKA Pass. And who’s got the contract? Aquatech. How does that happen? What will you be doing there and what’s

Devesh Sharma: the story? It’s been an actual long journey before I. Talk a little bit about Thacker Pass. I just wanna mention that being in managing Brian, a company that manages Brian, we’ve been doing things in this area a long time.

It just hasn’t been that visible of a market. That’s what I suspected. So a lot of brine mining, which if we have some time we can talk about as well, is very interesting. But, our entry into this market, when the focus is you take a brine and your focus is separating the water and reusing it, and then taking the impurities.

This is. The flip, we don’t want the water. Let’s take the water out. We want the lithium, we want the nickel we, whatever it may be. The skills are very similar. It’s not necessarily new technology. It may be the application of existing technology to meet new outcomes and Lithium America’s, it’s been a two year partnership with them that started in the lab.

It’s samples. It’s how can we prove to a demonstration in our. Applied testing and development facility in Milwaukee, and at the same time at their applied testing and development facility in Reno, where we’ve got a demonstration plant that Brian in one side and. Triple nine purity, lithium carbonate on the other side.

It’s a great industry. This is a particularly a wonderful client that we work as a partnership to validate and create a robust design, and it’s very important for investors and owners to see that and that have that validation of the lithium

Antoine Walter: purity. You mentioned the proximity to Brian Mining and to what you’ve been doing in Zazi for decade, if not decades.

Is it really the same thing or did you have to adapt to processes as well? Yes

Devesh Sharma: and no. It is the same thing in, it’s an integrated lot of times bespoke process, but it’s applying mostly existing technology that’s very proven to meet that unique outcomes. So Brian Mining the story is still yet to be written.

Just think about the benefit if the economics can be evolved. Look at solar. 20 years ago, if somebody told you that solar was going to be. 10 cents a kilowatt hour, everybody would’ve laughed. Today it’s 2.75 cents, let alone 10 cents. But it took time. It took help from governments incentives, tax incentives.

You need some supernatural inertia to make an industry grow, and then technological solutions are developed. Scale happens, and you find a way to make it economical. I think brine mining is. In that early phase right now, Hey, if somebody can invent something very cool to do with sodium chloride, we got a very interesting industry.


Antoine Walter: true. Again, brain mining could be another hardware I need to focus to, to stay on that lithium topic. Yes. This AKA pass project is a lighthouse project, but it comes with its challenges. It’s the first time that lithium gets extracted from clay. Yes. And not hard rock. I guess it’s gonna be like a good visit card to then visit different places and say it’s what you expect, but it’s not the traditional way.

Does that mean you will become a major lithium

Devesh Sharma: refining player? It’s a market that is dealing with complex brines and creating pure products with complex processes. So circling back to what we’re really good at, it’s a great fit for us. So you’re saying

Antoine Walter: it’s not that you will become, you already are.

Devesh Sharma: I wouldn’t wanna be, so I think we have work to do, but yeah, it’s a big focus area for us.

It’s a big focus area for us. And we like this holistic approach and we’re very well suited. I saw a slide the other day and it’s like we have a vertically integrated approach to the process scheme. And I say, no, we have a horizontal, we have a horizontally integrated approach. We have the ability to partner with the best technology.

If we can provide it, we’ll provide it. But we can deliver a process, train reliably, integrate it and take the pain of our clients away and partner with our clients. And it’s almost we’ve developed this capability over 40 years and here we have this very unique industry to really apply everything we know to, and that’s super exciting.

Given your position

Antoine Walter: in the company, I’m 200% sure you have access to the numbers You’ll tell me if I’m totally off. I have been told by water professionals that the reason why they go into these new applications, battery lithium, hydrogen soon is because they’re sick and tired of the two to three person profit margin, which you get in the traditional water, and they also want to take a piece of the cake at 20 30% profit margin.

Am I remotely true with that? I’m

Devesh Sharma: not gonna comment on your numbers. But I think relatively Look we can’t forget about water. Water’s a super exciting industry. We gotta balance lithium’s. Very exciting. The thing is when you have a chance to work with a client and help them solve a problem that’s core to their product, that’s a different place than sometimes water is.

We have to work to support our clients, but we’re the utility. So the nature of the two is different, but you have to balance, were you gonna grow? In lithium and critical minerals, we’re gonna grow in resource recovery and we’re gonna grow in water and we have to, one of my challenges is to maintain the discrete focus on all of them

Antoine Walter: On that microphone, I had a conversation with Ben Sparrow from Saltworks, and he shared how they have roughly one year of backlog.

So leap times are increasing because they are pushing things out of the door as fast as they can, but the market is growing even faster than they are growing themselves. And he said that. So you’re saying that basically you might be the bottleneck. Correct.

Devesh Sharma: Us and our competitors, and that has implications on the water treatment industry as well, because with the lithium industry heating up and these clients move fast and they have a willingness to pay, that’s going to draw capacity out of the water treatment industry.

This will all unravel in the coming years. I hope I’m wrong. But I think in fact, we already know that lead times are increasing across the board. Some of our competitors are quoting up to three years. Do

Antoine Walter: you share that concern and what are your current lead times?

Devesh Sharma: I certainly can’t argue with the concern, and that’s why we are engaged.

Early companies have to make early decisions because it’s a process of concept pilot, demo implementation, and we are. Focusing with several clients early and reserving our capacity. It’s like we were built for this over our journey. We have engineering all around the world. We have sourcing all around the world.

We’re doing projects in South America right now, and we’re sourcing globally. We’re doing projects in the us. We’re. Sourcing in the us So there’s a lot of variety to our global sourcing capability. But lead times could be from project implementation 12 to 24 months, but that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Yeah. What about all of the development that happened before that? So I’m trying to answer the question the best I can, we’re not providing one unit that. I can say, oh this is the delivery time of this unit. It’s get back to it. Complex projects. Yeah. Each project has a different dynamic.

A lot of these are remote locations, so there’s a high level of modularity. If you go to our plant right now, you’ll see stacks of things that don’t fit inside that are built to be put together very simply at site. But we’re doing the fed up outside in the parking lot. It was a nice picture opportunity.

We would take our sons and daughters to workday and we had a, a Kona ice truck and everybody was out there and behind. We had this dramatic. Thing with a bunch of modules being built. Very interesting. So it’s a tough question to answer. There’s not a, there’s not a single soundbite I could give you for that, but I hope I was able to answer it.


Antoine Walter: And if you have that picture, I’d be very happy to add it. You mentioned in the very beginning of this conversation how you were a private company, you have a major stakeholder, if I’m right, yes. You also a specific size of company. Which is getting very rare, like this middle-sized global player.

You have the very big ones, which even bigger and bigger. Exactly. So when you have island buying, Evoqua Lia, acquiring Suez, and then you have these. New entrants, which want to gobble as much as possible the fastest they can. I met with Ski on Water last week and this week, and they said they already did four acquisitions since the beginning of the year At some point, given your perfect a equation between the challenges of the time and your technology portfolio, given the fact that you are a private company, given the fact that you already have a big company on your shareholders, aren’t you the perfect

Devesh Sharma: targets?

I think, I can’t argue with you. I think so. We are. Extremely passionate about our business. Myself, and I speak for my brother Benke. And I think I speak for our management team who’s been on this journey with us, most of them for the last 25 years. We just wanna do good work. I remember I’ve just seen this throughout my whole career.

One of my projects when I was in college in the mid nineties was I took a mergers and acquisitions class and I did my project report on the US filter roll up. And so I was fascinated about this and I’ve seen the whole US filter. Then Vivendi buying US filter, becoming Veolia and selling into s Siemens, becoming a qua.

Then ge, Greg Ionic xenon early in the in, in my career, I was really Maybe in the young Turk mode, it’s oh, what are we gonna do? And if before long, it’s like our real ethos is we just wanna focus. Growth is important. You walk into Aquatech there’s a picture of our founder, there’s a quote underneath it is, being an entrepreneur is like a bicyclist.

You gotta keep pedaling or you fall down. So the goal isn’t to be the biggest. It’s to be the best. There’s no shortcuts. You gotta do good work. Just doing it inorganically is very difficult to get you there. You mentioned Ecolab. It’s a great partner. We’re very complimentary companies, one-third of the company can’t disclose numbers, okay?

So we’re a private company. We don’t do that, but significant stakeholder in Aquatech. We work independently, but we have the connection to provide our respective solutions to each other, and most importantly, to the clients, whether it’s, a steel plant in Europe or a bio-refinery in Louisiana, or our auto manufacturer in Alabama.

We work together. Between the two of us, there’s nothing that we can’t do and that’s been very valuable and that’s helped us with our mission.

Antoine Walter: But that’s the full point. It’s that if you look at what they do and what you do there is very limited overlap. So it’s like the perfect fit. Which makes me think it could fit even better.


Devesh Sharma: It’s been several years and I think we’re both in a very good place right now, so I can’t feed into your hints because that’s very honestly, we’re just, no, we’re just friends. Our approach is to continue to keep doing work our ideally, Continue to be a private company, but also we want to grow.

We wanna leave our mark on this industry and when we see right synergies like we did at the time when we did the deal with Ecolab, we’ll continue to do that to,

Antoine Walter: to be better. And I p o is totally out of the picture. Tough

Devesh Sharma: question if and when. It has to be the right fundamentals. We have to be able to deliver the right value.

Water is a challenge to scale. What we do very well is we scale technologies and scale plants. Scaling the business water as a service is very important. That’s what

Antoine Walter: I was gonna say. If you have 30 persons of your revenue, which is a r, it always makes you a tech company. Maybe it’s difficult to scale, but you are.

It’s a terrible way to say it. We are CashCo. I would see that working and if you want to grow, Further your watch as a service. It means you need cash to invest in your plans upfront. Which you could get with an I P U. I didn’t take m and a courses. I’m a total muggle, so I’m really doing like no risk to, I’m like

Devesh Sharma: you, I’m a engineer and learning as we go along.

But that is not the goal. The goal is to do good work, to continue to growing, to satisfy clients, to have employees that are. Really excited and happy and nothing’s out of the question in that case, there’s other ways to solve these things. We did a wonderful deal, great partner of ours is Upwell Water, and we’ve created a JV called Aquis Aquatech, upwell Industrial Outsourcing, and we partnered to do this water technology as a service.

So it doesn’t have to necessarily flow through your own balance sheet. There’s different ways to, to

Antoine Walter: skin the cat. You imagine how. I, P O M and A, whatever is just a tool and that what matters is your goal and how you achieve that goal. Which leads me to the last section for me in that deep dive, which is, as the CEO of the company, what is your metric for impact?

What are you following as a north star, which tells you that you have a positive impact? Very good

Devesh Sharma: question. I think definitely employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, repeat business, very important financially, constant growth. It’s not about how fast or how much it’s about what’s the right growth for you to keep doing the good work and to not lose.

Your credibility or your quality. I think the energy transition piece is can we make an impact in this world by supporting and accelerating the green with the blue? We want to be the number one industrial water treatment company in the market. That’s both, that’s love what we’re passionate. That’s the aspirational goal is when you talk to an end user and you say, who are the companies?

Aquatech is first in mind. That’s really sums up those goals. The way I think about that,

Antoine Walter: you. Obviously are long-term oriented because of the setup of the company, because of your history with the company, because of the fact you’re working with some members of Emity, some members of your management, which you’re working for 25 years, what is your horizon?

Is it five years plan, 10 years plan, 20 years. More in this

Devesh Sharma: industry, it’s very difficult to have a one year plan, so let’s throw that out the table because project cycles everything we’ve talked about. I think on a short term basis, it’s a minimum of a three years, like what do we wanna achieve on a rolling basis?

Of course, you have your one year plan, your financial goals and all of that. Always, but. So we look at it that short to medium term on a three to five year basis. I think that’s where a lot of the time goes in. But certainly the horizon is that’s just rolling. It’s infinite in a way. We, I don’t have a number but it’s yeah, in 10 years we’re gonna keep doing this and 20 years we’re gonna keep, I can’t think of anything else.

I don’t know Anything

Antoine Walter: else ve told you? I have to be cautious of your time. It’s a pity because I would have. So many more topics, the ones you mentioned, the ones you didn’t even mention. I bumped into some of your colleagues last week, which gave me some very interesting roads. I’d like to explore with you with Equate at some point I heard you that you have a great facility in Pittsburgh and that if I’m one day in Pittsburgh, you might have some time. So absolutely, anytime I use that Jo card, I remind you of that. But for today, I have two. Go to the last section of this conversation, which is the rapid fire question.

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Rapid Fire Questions

Antoine Walter: So in that last section, I have short questions, which I’m for short answers, but I’m not cutting the microphone at any point. The first one is, what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on? And why?

Devesh Sharma: One that comes to mind is Crumb bio energy. It’s a, what it represents is great.

It’s municipal solid waste to jet fuel, garbage to jet fuel. Is it Nevada? What can’t we achieve as a species if we can turn gar garbage to jet fuel? But the wastewater is very challenging. And this is that culmination of that water technology as a service. This thing’s got anaerobic treatment, aerobic treatment, water in pure water, our electro ionization.

It’s a, high recovery RO Z L D. And a 25 year operating contract, that’s very exciting. But also on the services side, we’ve worked together with Upwell and we’ve just last end of last year kicked off our rental fleet. Also what’s fun to drive into the office every morning, and I say trailers, say aquatech mobile services and we have the conventional R O E D I UF Pure Water Treatment, but.

We have DAFs and wastewater treatment and MBRs and before our first units were even off the assembly line, we already sold the wastewater treatment rentals. So that’s gonna be a going part of their business, that mission to raise that 30%. So stuff like that’s also very exciting. So again, balance, you have the really complex Uber technical project, things like rentals or biofilm Pro are equally as exciting.

Katie, one

Antoine Walter: thing that’s ruined the hard way, how about two?

Devesh Sharma: One, first and foremost, guiding light. You can’t fight economics. Okay? You have to look at the business case. So many years I focused on how cool a technology is or how cool a solution is. You gotta figure out if it makes economic sense. And the second one is there’s no shortcuts.

Especially in this industry. You had to do good work. You have to execute projects. They’re complex. It’s not as easy as saying, oh, this water analysis has changed you. Stuff to deliver for the client. No shortcuts. Is there something

Antoine Walter: you’re doing today in your job that you will not be doing in 10 years?

Devesh Sharma: I hope I’m not multitasking as much as I am today. That’s one thing that comes to mind. I hope I’m traveling less, but If you ask my wife, she would look behind me and she says, he doesn’t mean that he loves to travel. So I don’t know. But that’s certainly what comes to mind.


Antoine Walter: very interesting because everybody mentions this travel element, and on the other hand, everybody I bump into at this forum or whenever there’s a conference tells me that nothing we replace in. In-person interaction. So what’s your opinion on that?

Devesh Sharma: I couldn’t agree more. I think I think there’s a place, and it’s funny, all this technology existed before the pandemic, but it really got extenuated teams and it all existed.

We never used it. There’s a place for both. There’s certainly an acceleration if I need to go meet a client in Saudi Arabia and take a four technical team, And it takes six months to, to get everybody’s schedule aligned. And it’s a week out of everybody’s lives to do that, where now it’s like, Hey, can we do this next Wednesday?

So that is invaluable. I was at the Global Water Summit last week and I felt like I. I pitched a tent in the lobby and just slept there. It felt like that. Three days of just meeting everyone, talking sometimes over a drink, sometimes over coffee. You can’t replicate personal face-to-face relationship interaction.

It’ll never you. But there’s a balance to both.

Antoine Walter: What is the trend to watch out for in the water

Devesh Sharma: sector? I think the technologies related to, to reuse, look at the membrane technologies, just three, four years ago, you’re limited in membranes to osmotic pressure and, 70, 75,000.

Tds Today we’re talking two 50 2 25, 2 50. So membrane brine concentration. Some of the things we saw yesterday about desalination, making it more cost effective. That’s a trend of course, digital. I think digital is sometimes a buzzword. Sometimes it’s not very clear But I think there’s a lot of tools, and it’s really interesting is nobody’s talking about it yet, maybe next year, but can you imagine the impact of chat G p T to our industry and AI that, that in that way.

And of course there’s control and plant control, but what about training? What about opportunities are endless? How can we, I like that. How can we, Shrink the commercialization time. If that would be a trend, that would be a, this is gonna be a great industry for us all. If we can change the cycle from 13 years to commercialize technology to even less than five

Antoine Walter: Imagine.

Yeah. And 13 years is if you pick the winner. So you could also take something which ends up in Badala for forever, but that. Again, fascinating topic, but if I open


Devesh Sharma: one, we could talk about that for an hour.

Antoine Walter: Yeah. You mentioned multitasking as something you would like to do a bit less in the future.

If I became instant, your assistance, what’s the first task you would delegate to me?

Devesh Sharma: I’d use your great networking skill to help. Help increase my five leadership on LinkedIn. That’s a good one.

Antoine Walter: Maybe we can discuss that.

Devesh Sharma: But yeah. There’s so much to do just kind of flavor of the week is if I had a maybe a chief of staff or an assistant to, she’ll take mine and some of our other decks and cut ’em in half.

It’s like, how do you say? Less, somebody came on the stage yesterday and she said, I promise this is the only slide where I have more than 20 words. Yeah. Or 20 words. Yeah. I’m like, I love that. So help in permeating a more effective communication strategy because.

It’s industry. We’re a lot of engineers, and we love 35 slide deck. And it’s like, how do we do this in five, getting an assistant to help me do that would be great. Recruitment’s a big one. Recruitment is not the job of the HR team. It’s the job of the manager to work in partnership.

A lot of critical recruitment and it’s not a task. It’s a huge opportunity to shape your company. And it’s something that just when you asked about that, geez, if somebody was sitting there, I’d say, Help me with this. Help me with this. So those are the two things that come to mind. Are you actually recruiting right now?

Absolutely. So people can

Antoine Walter: reach out to you or to your company. Absolutely. So if you’re listening to that, watching this, you heard it Devesh. So that’s maybe your next opportunity to grow into a position at Aquatech. Last question. Would you have someone to recommend me? I should definitely invite as soon as possible on the

Devesh Sharma: microphone.

I’ll give you three. Tamin pip at Upwell, he’s the CEO of Upwell Water brings a a. Very interesting per perspective from the finance side and in an opposite way, highly technical potential podcast is Keith Lampe of fts, H 20, who’s a pioneer in these brain concentration membrane technology and a great guy to talk to.

You’ll love to do that. I also have a Job where I’m the, on the board of the International Desalination Association. And Shannon McCarthy, the Secretary of General, she’s here and she’s doing a lot of good work in promoting desal around the world and reuse. I think those three come to mind.

They’d be very interesting podcasts.

Antoine Walter: Thanks that for the recommendations, if people want to follow up with you after that interview, where should I redirect them? The best? I think,

Devesh Sharma: Email. We can put up the email on, on, on the pot and

Antoine Walter: I think that’ll work. Perfect. Devs, it’s been a pleasure as a set.

I can. Keep on that for hours, but we don’t have it today, but we might have it in the future. So I’m looking forward to having a sequel conversation with you as well.

Devesh Sharma: Yeah, you’re welcome. Anytime and maybe not me, maybe you can get a different perspective from Vanke next time. Thanks a lot.

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