Everybody wants to be the big dog one day! But how do you ensure staying on top once you’ve secured the number 1? That’s what we explore today, as we prove innovation to be key, at the intersection of membrane filtration, digital twins, and sustainability. Let’s wander the ever-evolving landscape of the global water industry and its pressing challenges, with a very special guide:
with 🎙️ Glenn Vicevic – CTO at Veolia Water Technologies & Solutions
💧 Veolia WTS provides Industry-leading water technology and process expertise to solve the toughest water, wastewater, and process challenges
Slider – Innovating as the World’s Largest Water CompanyInfographic-Andreas-Muller-GF-The-222-Year-Old-Unicorn-Thats-Still-Going-Strong
Full Video – How does the World’s Largest Water Company keep innovating?
Teaser 1 – Failing can get quite expensive if you’re the World’s Largest Water Company
Teaser 2 – “Circular” could start anywhere: let’s leverage our existing infrastructure!
Teaser 3 – Change will happen if we educate people better to Water!
What we covered:
💦 Why the Membrane Filtration Sector is a Thrilling Space and What’s to learn from its evolution across the past three decades
🏭 What it Takes to Drive Innovation in the Water Industry and what we can learn from A Peek Inside Veolia’s R&D
💼 How Building a Career in Water Treatment Can Lead to Impactful Work, and what we learn from Glenn Vicevic’s Journey from Zenon to Veolia through GE Water and SUEZ, all without switching company
🌍 Why The World Should be Paying More Attention to the Role of Water in Climate Change (and How)
🧑🔬 How Researchers are still Pushing the Boundaries in Membrane Science – and how the next big thing seems to revolve around MABRs
🚰 What Veolia’s Smart Water System Teaches Us About the Future of Water Management
📈 Why Veolia’s ‘Digital Twin’ Could Be a Game Changer for the Water Sector – and to which extent
💼 How Veolia’s Organizational Structure is Setting It Up for Future Success – in the packed context of a long M&A history, especially on the once Zenon part of the business
🏞️ Why Zenon’s Water Treatment Project in Indigenous Communities is an Unforgettable Experience
🚀 Glenn’s special trick to Leap Out of His Comfort Zone to Drive Innovation at Veolia (and how you can apply this to your team TODAY)
📊 Why Traditional Wastewater Indicators May Not Be Enough in the Modern Age
🤝 How Collaboration and Communication are Vital for Success in the Water Sector: Lessons from Glenn Vicevic
👨💻 Remote Work, using your own medicine, micropollutants, micro-electronics, What Halloween and Water Treatment Have in Common, Stage and Gates, the high cost of failure as a Water Giant… and much more!
🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥
Teaser 4 – Veolia’s CTO’s simple trick for better innovation you shall steal today!
Teaser 5 – How did it feel to go through three mergers?
Teaser 6 – How to tell your Water Innovation is ready for Mass Market?
🔗 Come say hi to Glenn on LinkedIn
🔗 Check Veolia Water Technologies & Solutions’ website
is on Linkedin ➡️
Table of contents
- Slider – Innovating as the World’s Largest Water Company
- Full Video – How does the World’s Largest Water Company keep innovating?
- Teaser 1 – Failing can get quite expensive if you’re the World’s Largest Water Company
- Teaser 2 – “Circular” could start anywhere: let’s leverage our existing infrastructure!
- Teaser 3 – Change will happen if we educate people better to Water!
- What we covered:
- Teaser 4 – Veolia’s CTO’s simple trick for better innovation you shall steal today!
- Teaser 5 – How did it feel to go through three mergers?
- Teaser 6 – How to tell your Water Innovation is ready for Mass Market?
- Teaser 7 – How the World’s Largest Water Company fosters its Water Autonomy
- Teaser 8 – Will we finally see Water Resource Factories?
- Editorial: The 222-Year Old Start Up that supports Lithium’s Leap Frog
- Full Transcript:
- Introducing: Veolia Water Technologies & Solutions
- Starting out in the Water Industry at Zenon Environmental
- Growing along Zenon’s, GE Water, SUEZ and now VEOLIA integrations
- What’s the role of Veolia Water Technologies & Solutions’ CTO?
- Water Treatment Membranes are a Fast Moving Field. How to stay on top?
- Veolia WTS’ Go-To-Market Routes
- The Challenge with M&A Integrations
- Are MABRs the next big thing?
- Towards Energy-Positive Wastewater Treatment?
- Is it time to Renovate America’s Water?
- What’s the best option: centralized or distributed water?
- Will we finally see the rise of Circular Economy in the Water Industry?
- As Veolia’s CTO how much effort goes in developing new tech vs maintaining the existing?
- What’s the impact of innovation in the Water Industry?
- How can Veolia, as the World’s Largest Water Company fuel innovation’s adoption?
- Will ceramic membranes disrupt polymerics?
- Veolia’s CTO’s KPI: Vitality
- Rapid Fire Questions
- Other Episodes:
Teaser 7 – How the World’s Largest Water Company fosters its Water Autonomy
Teaser 8 – Will we finally see Water Resource Factories?
Editorial: The 222-Year Old Start Up that supports Lithium’s Leap Frog
Innovation as a water start-up is an uphill battle. If you’ve ever listened to this podcast, we’ve covered that topic through many examples: you’ll have to commit for years to decades to push your technology through, and it will require a lot of grit, persistence, confidence, and much more.
To describe that Sisyphus-worthy path, we’ve often taken a few examples on that microphone that illustrate well this entrepreneurship journey, and arguably the n°1 example is Zenon’s story.
I guess we don’t have to dive into the details here, because we did that extensively with the legendary Andrew Benedek, the founder of Zenon, when he was my guest about 15 months ago.
But Andrew’s trajectory is just one of the possible outcomes. Grow your company until it’s almost too big to stand alone, exit, and use your well-earned money to start again and strive to save the World.
How Three Mergers shaped a Water Tech Powerhouse
Yet, when Zenon merged with GE Water, and Andrew Benedek went on to acquire Anaergia, Zenon’s Technical Director stayed with the company, and kept growing with it, as it went on to merge with Suez and last but not least, Veolia.
You would have guessed it, this former technical director is Glenn Vicevic, my guest today, and Veolia WTS’s chief technical officer.
And what’s fascinating about today’s conversation is that it gets us to understand the next part of a technological company’s path. What do you have to do to stay on top of the game? How do innovation and R&D tick at a different pace and follow different rules once you’re a water tech giant, compared to your early steps as an agile Start-Up. And how do you deal with the cool kids?
What’s cooler than exploring the innovation engine of the World’s largest water tech company? Let’s find out, trust me, you’ll get to love Glenn’s openness and eagerness to share several nuggets!
These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂
Antoine Walter: Hi Glenn. Well come to the show!
Glenn Vicevic: Thank you. Thanks for having me today.
Antoine Walter: I am excited for many reasons to that conversation today, because there’s a lot of topics which I really want to bounce at you, but I have traditions on that microphone, and that starts with the postcard.
But can you tell me about the place you’re usually at when you’re not in Edinburgh sitting with me, which I would ignore by now?
Introducing: Veolia Water Technologies & Solutions
Glenn Vicevic: Well, I’m usually at the Veolia Water Technology and Solutions site in Oakville, Ontario, which is near Toronto, 50 kilometers west of Toronto. That’s the Heritage Headquarters Zenon Environmental, and that’s where my office is, and, uh, it’s a great facility.
I invite you there to visit us one day. You can see our, innovative technology.
You may ignore: Veolia WTS treats its own water
In fact, something people don’t know is that we don’t have a sewer line in that office, nor do we have water supply. We treat our own water from groundwater with our membranes and treat our own sewage and recycle. The treated sewage to flush all the toilets.
Antoine Walter: You’re using your own medicine?
Glenn Vicevic: Yes, if it doesn’t work, we have serious consequences.
Antoine Walter: Actually, you gave me a very smooth transition to Zenon, which is one year. Roughly day for day ago, I interviewed Andrew Benedict on that microphone and we went through the path of Zenon. You didn’t join from day one. But you joined pretty early.
Starting out in the Water Industry at Zenon Environmental
What was the state of Zenon when you joined in 1992?
Glenn Vicevic: I joined 12 years after the beginning of Zenon, but it was before ZeeWeed was actually a product. It was in the very initial testing stages. So it was a great place to work. We were fearless in Zenon, and we were foolish to be fearless, but we were fearless.
And it was great to be part of that revolution, what Paul refers to his unicorns, didn’t seem like a unicorn at the time. And, uh, it was great to see the growth of, uh, the Z Weed product line from the very beginning stages, all the way through to the mass manufacturing we now have at our factory in Oroslo.
Antoine Walter: I had a conversation a long time ago on that microphone where Zenon was qualified as “The Lonely Prophet in the Wilderness”Infographic-Graeme-Pearce
Antoine Walter: Does that reflect your experience?
Glenn Vicevic: Well, I don’t know about that. When you’re behind the mask, it’s different than when you’re looking at the mask.
So I don’t feel we were a lone ranger, but we were very motivated to innovate and disrupt. We were very successful doing that because we had nothing to lose.
Growing along Zenon’s, GE Water, SUEZ and now VEOLIA integrations
Antoine Walter: So that was your start at Zenon, then Zenon became GE Water, then GE Water became Suez WTS, and now Suez WTS became Veolia WTS. Still, the office is physically at the same place.
Yes. What did it change to go through those Three mergers?
Glenn Vicevic: It was a great learning experience. Every single time we were acquired, I learned something else. And GE taught management rigor. Suez taught us about the impact of environment in a broader way. And Veolia is committed to ecological transformation.
So it’s like a new beginning every time you go through this. And you get to meet a lot of great new people, a great new R& D. And you get to tell your story. Three times.
What’s the role of Veolia Water Technologies & Solutions’ CTO?
Antoine Walter: Talking about your beginning, you’re CTO. That’s your new role. What do you do as a CTO?
Glenn Vicevic: A CTO is the traditional role where you manage the research and development activities.
And really, you’re an engine for innovation in the company. As well as helping solve problems with, uh, ongoing activities, you know, we have a large manufacturing plants and sometimes they have hiccups and the team that I have has to work on that. But the innovation part is really thrilling and it’s in both the chemistry, our chemicals group and our equipment group ranging from membranes to evaporators to bipolar electrodialysis.
And it’s a really challenging and interesting activity. I’m very pleased to have been appointed to that role.
Supporting the broad portfolio of the world’s largest Water Tech Company
Antoine Walter: You mentioned some examples of your product portfolio, but where does it start? Where does it stop? What’s inside?
Glenn Vicevic: With every acquisition. The portfolio got larger, and so it seems like it doesn’t stop, but I mean, effectively, we have solutions for customers that involve membrane filters and conventional products that help our customers be more successful.
We have a large services portfolio where we take some of those products, some other products, we apply them. to service issues, to help our customers with them. And then we have technologies like evaporators and crystallizers and wastewater treatment equipment and conventional reverse osmosis systems, microelectronic solutions for ultra pure water in the micro industry.
So we have a very, very, very broad portfolio. So it’s sometimes tough to keep on top of all the different parts of our portfolio.
Antoine Walter: I refer the last time to one of the former conversations I had on that microphone with some weeks ago, I discussed with Jim Rieke and we covered your evaporators, crystallizers, HPD department.
Is that part of what you’re now overseeing?
Glenn Vicevic: So Veolia Water Technologies is merging with Veolia Water Technologies and Solutions to form the water technology zone for Veolia. So we’re working with our colleagues in VWT. It’s still a work in progress. We’re in the emerger stages, and it’s been a great opportunity to learn from the teams and compare and contrast the technologies.
And one thing is clear. Our commitment to ecological transformation is common between both organizations.
Water Treatment Membranes are a Fast Moving Field. How to stay on top?
Antoine Walter: At the core of your product portfolio, there’s still this membrane big chunk, right? How do you ensure to stay on the top of the game when it comes to membranes?
Glenn Vicevic: Yeah, it depends what you mean by being on top of the game, uh, because I was there from the beginning with, uh, the ZeeWeed membranes.
And, uh, that’s a journey where you’re trying to establish your value proposition. You’re trying to sell your customers and stakeholders and regulators on the value of your product. As we’ve matured to a mass manufacturer of membrane solutions, it’s more about controlling costs, more about meeting delivery.
It’s more about scale. You imagine if you’re making 100 membranes and you have to increase your capacity by 10%, that’s very insignificant. But if you’re making a million membranes and you have to increase by 10%. So the scale challenges are quite considerable and making really smart decisions about how to manufacture in the most friendly manner for our customers and environmentally consciously.
So you preserve the resources and the environment. That’s the real challenge now.
There’s little headroom as number 1
Antoine Walter: What I’m thinking with the challenge is that, you know, being number two, it’s not an easy position, but you have a clear target, which is you need to overcome number one. So you have that horizon when you’re the leader. Well, the only thing that can happen to you is that you can go down.
Glenn Vicevic: True, isn’t it? But I think it’s really simplistic to have a binary look at being number one and number two, because there’s different elements to commercial transactions. For instance, you can have the best technology in the world. But if you don’t have proper distribution and effective distribution, then you’re not really fulfilling the entitlement that you have with your product line.
So it’s more than just having the best product. You have to have it with the best distribution if you want to be number one. So you can work on a number of areas. You can work on cost cutting activities to make your product more cost effective. You can work at better ways to digitize your products so you provide solutions to your customers.
In fact, we did something several years ago. We took our reverse osmosis line and we digitized it into a tool. to allow our customers rapid ability to select the features that they want it to. So we can bring that into our ERP and produce it for them very quickly. So there’s a lot of ways you can, you can improve what you’re doing beyond the technological way of inventing a new membrane or a new process around the membrane.
There are many “Membrane Cool Kids” cutting their teeth right now in the Water Industry
Antoine Walter: Still I need to ask you that question. We’re at the Bluetech Forum. We’re seeing several membrane companies pitching. Just in the pitch session just before we had Cerfiltec, Membrion. Right. And they’re more cool kids, like, and NX Filtration, like Evove…
Glenn Vicevic: You’re saying we’re not cool kids?
Antoine Walter: I’m saying we’re a different breed of cool kids! How would you look at those companies?
Glenn Vicevic: I look at it much as my career. When I started off, I was a risk taker. I didn’t know a lot about the industry. Ignorance is bliss. And as you get older and you advance, you realize that there are things that you learn, and you have to make more learned decisions. So, uh, I like to be informed by the experiences, and I think that holds for our technologies.
We have large factories where we have to worry about how to produce, and how to continue to produce, keep these factories running. And that’s our number one objective is to make sure we provide our customers with the solutions that they contract with us and get it to them as quickly as we can, and with the highest quality we can and the lowest price.
Veolia WTS’ Go-To-Market Routes
Antoine Walter: You mentioned customers. Who’s your number one customer? Is it Veolia?
Glenn Vicevic: Veolia is one of the largest customers we have. You know, we’ve been very, very fortunate over the years for our different products. customers from all over the world. And Veolia was a large customer. Suez was a large customer of ours. We sell to the micro electronics industry.
We sell to the food and beverage industry. We sell to municipalities in parts of the Toronto area. You’ll find that, uh, over a million liters a day of water is produced by our seaweed membranes for potable water. So we’re rich with customers.
Antoine Walter: But is it something which is really decoupled like. You could be going through your natural company, which is Veolia, and then Veolia would commercialize your technologies, or you could also go with a competitor of Veolia as it’s fully, fully split.
Glenn Vicevic: Well, I mean, I think everyone who’s followed the merger is that Veolia declared that there was an important aspect of the value of the merger was the internalization of the products so that Veolia would use Veolia products, so. In fact, I’m, I’m leading part of that initiative to make sure, but Veolia is a very large company and we have to explain as anyone would to Veolia as a very smart buyer that we have a product they’ll suit their, their needs, but we’re committed to provide the support for all of our customers, especially Veolia, our new owners.
And I must say we’ve been really successful so far and had great welcome in Veolia. I’m very pleased to be part of the. The red team.
The Challenge with M&A Integrations
Antoine Walter: It’s interesting because I’m a former Suez guy and we… Me too. Yeah, I remember that thing of, you never mentioned Veolia, you mentioned the reds, and you never mentioned Suez, you said the greens.
So do you still meet people in the corridor who say, I’m the greener? What was the color of Zenon? Zenon was blue and green. Okay, so you have the blue, the green and the reds? Or how does that work?
Glenn Vicevic: You know, I’ve been through a few integrations, Antoine, and one of the problems with integrations is you need very simple vernacular to explain When you’re doing a mergers of IT systems and everything.
So yeah, the colors are the easiest way, but we are part of Veolia and uh, I was a proud member of Suez when I was a member of Suez and I really enjoyed my time with that team. And I’m very eager to continue the work with Veolia here and, uh, having such a great welcome. In fact, on Monday, I was at the Veolia R& D headquarters, meeting with the team, planning for our collaboration work.
So it’s great. And I spent a lot of time in Circe too, with the team before. So I’m very conversant of the laboratories in the greater Paris area. Veolia
Are MABRs the next big thing?
Antoine Walter: Membranes is one part of your portfolio. You name also all the technologies you have. Will you have like one very specific technology which you like, like your protégé, the next big thing?
Glenn Vicevic: I’ve been a big proponent of the membrane aerated biofilm reactors and our product is called ZeeLung and it’s something that, uh, we developed in the Zenon days and then commercialized it and improved it in the Suez days and now we’re applying it and it’s a really a great way to intensify, take full value of the assets.
If you think about it, our infrastructure, we’re very fortunate that we have this wonderful infrastructure. Yes, it’s dated, but we shouldn’t throw it away. We should take full advantage of it and we’re developing solutions to improve that infrastructure and squeeze more value out of it. So for instance, with our MABR, we can squeeze.
An additional 50% treatment capacity out of the same civil works. So I’m excited about, about technologies like that. On the other hand, we have other technologies like bipolar electrodialysis, which really helps you with circular economy. So when you look at plants that are producing streams of concentrated solids, like sodium sulfate, with bipolar electrodialysis, you can split that into acids and bases and reuse it in the process.
All of these technologies are enablers of some of the ecological transformation challenges that we face. And that’s, what’s great to be part of Veolia right now is that we have these great opportunities to offer these solutions within the company and to Veolia’s extensive customers.
How fast are MABRs adopted by the Water Market?
Antoine Walter: You mentioned MABRs.
I said I wouldn’t not, but I was discussing MABRs with Gilad Yogev from Fluence, I think two years ago on the microphone. Fluence was seeing MABRs as something more for new builds. If I get you right, it’s more about brownfields and upgrading existing plants.
Glenn Vicevic: I think Fluence, I shouldn’t speak for Fluence, but I think they’re going after a different market.
And we are, they have a slightly different product. I’m very familiar with Fluence and the team. And, uh, they’re going after a little different market. But the one that we are, uh, interested in is the upgrades and intensification market. Naturally, we’ve had so much experience with MBR. We know that market very, very well.
We know the customers. We understand how to apply. And that’s exactly what, as a layman, I would think, I’m surprised it doesn’t take off even faster than it does. So, we’re taking advantage of that and helping our customers with it. So, I think there’s opportunities for MABR everywhere. If you think about it, molecular diffusion is the lowest energy way to transfer oxygen.
So, you know, ultimately, I do believe that all oxygen transfer will be done by molecular diffusion.
MABRs are actually silently taking off faster than MBRs!
Antoine Walter: And that’s exactly what, as a layman, I would think, I’m surprised it doesn’t take off even faster than it does. It sounds… It’s just a perfect product.
Glenn Vicevic: In the Zenon days, we interestingly mapped the growth of the ZeeWeed MBR product against the growth of MABR.
And in fact, MABR is growing faster than MBR did in those days. I think when you’re at the end of a growth cycle, you tend to look romantically at the past and you’re more looking at the conditions there are in the current times. The pace is actually quite bullish about it in the future. I think it’s going to solve a lot of our ecological challenges we have.
Antoine Walter: But is it part of the challenge when you have… Just three companies, Oxymem, I guess, so DuPont nowadays, Fluence, and you. Right. Would it help if you had like five, ten different companies offering that?
Glenn Vicevic: Anyone is welcome to invest. These three companies took a chance on MABR technology before it was being talked about in a very popular water podcast.
So I would invite anyone. Uh, to perhaps not follow MABR, but work on your new invention. With the whole conference today that, uh, Bluetech is sponsoring is about innovation. There’s plenty of interesting ideas that are being put forward. So, uh, it’s really who’s brave enough to take the investments and take the risks.
And, uh, there are very, very sad days when you’re trying to develop new technologies and there’s great days. If you sell your first plant, it’s a wonderful day.
How does competition help shape a market for a new water technology’s adoption?
Antoine Walter: What I’m trying to wrap my head around is how competition is not an inhibitor, but it’s supporting. The development of technology. As you’ve seen that with the zillion days when Kubota and ve all the Japanese companies started pushing MBRs, all of a sudden you were not the lone Ranger anymore, but you had some support.
Glenn Vicevic: Actually, Kubota was first. They were ahead of us and there, and, and actually Zenon had a tubular MBR before they had the seaweed product. In the municipal procurement model, particularly in North America, there’s a sort of a, a paradigm where you wanna compare one. Competitor to the other. So you have a good competitive process for procurement and sometimes more house, but, but three is three is enough, I think for that.
And we’re challenging each other every day. We challenge each other to get better. And it’s great to have competition. If you’re by yourself, I think you get a little lazy and maybe stupid.
Antoine Walter: That’s a strong saying. The MABR is an improvement to the existing. This might be taking you into energy neutral, maybe energy positive.
If we look. Overall, there’s seven times the energy in wastewater that’s in need to treat it. So theoretically speaking, you could be outputting six times more than what you’re putting inside. But that would require an entire new set of technologies, which maybe exist, maybe don’t exist. I don’t know. My question is, how do you deal with these disruptive approaches?
Towards Energy-Positive Wastewater Treatment?
Is it something which you can look into as a big? Renowned company as Veolia, or is it something which has to come from externally?
Glenn Vicevic: We were working on energy neutral and energy positive wastewater treatment for years, and the technology exists to do that. And there are plants that are, in fact, doing it all over the world, but it hasn’t really taken off as much as it could have.
Part of the reason is, you know, we have a simplistic view of a wastewater plant as a solution to a burden, not as a factory. The phrase I’ve been using for, I think, 10 years now is to transform our wastewater treatment plants into resource recovery factories that generate renewable natural gas, clean water for reuse.
and safe fertilizer, and that requires a paradigm shift in the way people think. And, uh, stakeholders, uh, regulators and the public in general, as well as vendors have to think differently. You know, it’s one thing to produce a factory, to develop a product. It’s another thing to be treating water and wastewater as a societal benefit.
Some paradigm shift, something has to come. It’s coming, but I would agree. It’s coming a little slower than we all need.
The “Water Resource Factory” is still in the makring
Antoine Walter: I’m not as young as I’d like to be. I graduated. Tell me about it. I graduated 12 years ago. And when I graduated as a water engineer, we were told, don’t call it waste water treatment plants anymore.
Call it water resource factories. And that was 12 years ago. So what do we need to have that paradigm shift?
Glenn Vicevic: You’re calling for communication. And what we’re doing today is actually a really important part of it to tell, uh, anyone who’s an interested party who’s listening to the podcast. I know you have a lot of listeners that these things are happening now and we need others to support it and ask questions.
You know, we need citizens to demand of. Uh, their governments and their regulators to try to challenge to be more environmentally conscious and support ecological transformations. And as engineers, you know, we have to ask ourselves, are we thinking that in the most broadest way about how we can provide solutions at the same time providing value.
So it’s not like there’s a one particular message, but it’s generally communication and simplifying your message, transforming a wastewater treatment plan to a resource recovery factory. It’s a very simple message. Just keep getting it out. I’ve been repeating it for 10 years, maybe I have to do it for another 20 years.
I hope not.
What’s the link between Water Industry and Carbon Impact?
Antoine Walter: Do you think carbon is a good lens to look at that? Because if you compare wastewater management and treatment to the entire flight industry, aviation has a certain carbon impact. Wastewater is two to three times the carbon impact. But if you take a plane, you have a bad gut feeling. If you’re flushing your toilet, you don’t think about water’s carbon impact?
Glenn Vicevic: Yeah. Unfortunately, it’s a complex issue. Talking about carbon is a very Most fundamental way of talking about it. So I am a proponent of having simple, simple discussions. And now you see, when you buy a ticket, it tells you what your greenhouse gas emissions are. So, I mean, we can start doing that with our water and wastewater plans.
Transparency is an important way. That’s another way of communication. We have to have an educational program for our children, so they understand the impacts. When I was a young person, we were dealing with smoking as an issue. My parents smoked. My aunts and uncles smoked and my generation in the 70s started to be taught about the implications of smoking and smoking is still existing here, but it’s not a significant societal behavior as it used to be.
Change can happen if we educate and we continue to communicate.
Is it time to Renovate America’s Water?
Antoine Walter: I’ll give you a cliche and you’ll tell me if it’s wrong and it’s probably wrong. When we discuss waste water in North America and particularly in the US, we have this image of the Clean Water Act 1972. And then the inception of trickling filters, and then it stopped.
So if you go to wastewater treatment plants in the US Midwest, you will still see trickling filters. Is that true? Is it time to Rethink Water in America?
Glenn Vicevic: Well, in Canada, in the North, you’ll see lagoons. Aerated lagoons and non aerated lagoons. I mean, there’s a reason why technologies exist in different locations. You know, some of it has to. To do with investment, some has to do with acumen training operators.
What we’re trying to do in Veolia Water Technologies and solutions is to provide the enabling technologies to help improve these existing assets we need and throw out assets. We should find ways to make them more efficient to help solve some of the problems. In some cases, yes, we’re gonna have to make some significant changes and wipe.
Those technologies and start again. But in many cases, we can make significant improvements, add value, not disrupt the investments in the work that’s been done. That’s the particular issue that I’m, in fact, I, I coined a phrase for it. It’s not innovation, it’s renovation. We’re renewing, we’re looking at the reality of making change happen, and we’re looking at resources and trying to preserve resources.
And if you think about it, Antoine resource is something that you’ve invested in and you put it. In the ground, like a trickling filter, it’s also time. So if you want to change a plan from the bottom up and you want to convert it completely, you’re spending a lot of time. If you can get a solution that does most of the work or all of the work, and you can retrofit something, you’ve saved a lot of time.
Time’s a very valuable resource, especially when you’re old.
What’s the best option: centralized or distributed water?
Antoine Walter: Let’s speak of size. There’s this debate, centralized versus decentralized. Centralized used to be the most efficient way to deal with water and waste water because we had no other way to reach the size. Digitalization brings us in a different world where distributed might be a concept.
So you have an opinion as a Veolia?
Glenn Vicevic: Well, I don’t have an opinion about decentralized versus centralized because my customers are in both fields. But let’s talk about the infrastructure, the sewer network. that runs through all of the infrastructure we’ve put in place is the linkage that links all these products together.
And if we can find a way to take advantage of that sewer network, sewer mining, if we can find a way to provide value, you needn’t large facility to do that. You’ve got that network, take advantage of the network. Similar with the natural gas network. that exists all over Europe and North America and other countries.
We can take advantage of that network and we can produce our renewable natural gas at our wastewater plants, inject it right into the lines after we upgrade it. This is taking advantage of the infrastructure, decentralized, centralized, really take advantage of the assets that you have. If decentralized is an enabler of ecological transformation, then we should move with decentralized.
I’m sure it will be a balance of both. What’s what you do with sewer mining? I think there’s lots of value, but we have a phosphorus issue, right? We’re running out of phosphorus. I mean, that just comes to the top of the mind. Water, of course, or water reuse. Some people talk about recovering assets from it.
Existing infrastructure is a resource that’s available to be reaped
There’s lots of opportunities. The point is it’s there. It’s a resource. We have it. We have the pipes already there. And we should take advantage of it. And the technologies are there to allow us to mine sewers and get more value. Mining seawater, extracting value from seawater. We’re enabling the circular economy and it’s not just a buzzword.
If you’re talking about cliches, right? I don’t think circular economy is a cliche. It’s a way of thinking. The technologies are the enablers, but if you don’t think that way, if you don’t accept that as a base, fundamental principle, technologies are. Practically useless in that.
Will we finally see the rise of Circular Economy in the Water Industry?
Antoine Walter: But circular economy cannot be enabled from the water industry alone.
You need to have the value chains, upstreams, downstreams. How do we team up with our neighbors?
Glenn Vicevic: Well, yeah, it’s called circular for a reason. It doesn’t have to start anywhere, right? It can be a product that can be identified. It could be a shortage, an opportunity. I just chose to start with the infrastructure and saying, Hey, we have these wonderful sewer lines full of resource that we can take advantage of.
We have these natural gas lines we can take advantage of. By its very definition, circular economy means you can start anywhere. It’s not important where you start, it’s important where you finish.
How can we leverage the creativity of “wastewater persons” for that?
Antoine Walter: We had this discussion this morning. What’s the difference between drinking and wastewater when it comes to innovation and the pace at which things are evolving?
I’m defining myself as a wastewater person. I associate that with kind of creativity and a bit of more freedom. Do you share that opinion?
Glenn Vicevic: Well, it’s funny you define yourself as a wastewater person. I also define myself as a wastewater person, and I hadn’t thought about it till you brought it up. But yes, we have some ways to go if we’re going to unify that.
If you and I just. Find ourselves in one particular way. But I do believe that, yeah, the area you start in your career is the area that you kind of latch into. I started in wastewater treatment over those years, but it’s absolutely clear to me that these areas are unifying. They’re merging into one area and all of society is merging into a resource management.
And water and wastewater are a resource. Heat is a resource. We saw some presentations today. How about some companies that are taking advantage of, of waste, heat and try to do more with that? Heat’s a resource. Enthalpy is a resource. Uh, so I think really we’ve got a waste to go. Our vernacular doesn’t really serve us in some of these areas, right?
We’re a slave to the vernaculars. Maybe you can take advantage of that and pull all the people on your podcast and come up with a new vernacular for us to use.
As Veolia’s CTO how much effort goes in developing new tech vs maintaining the existing?
Antoine Walter: Coming back to your portfolio within Veolia, how much of your time do you spend developing the portfolio itself? So better products and how much of your time do you spend taking the existing products and thinking What are the other applications in which they could be useful?
Glenn Vicevic: We produce a lot of products in our portfolio So a portion of our time in the R&D department is spent on that 30% depending on the particulars But the rest of the time we’re spending on trying to find ways to either improve the product or break the paradigm and come up with a new product. So we look at open innovation too.
I’m a big proponent of partnering. I’m a big proponent of, of working with others and providing, I mentioned earlier about distribution. One of the challenges today at the Bluetech was innovation and commercialization. And one of the, of the team I was with was talking about, you can have a great idea, but if you can’t get it to market.
Really it’s academic. So if you can partner with an organization that has existing distribution or a partner who is a distributor and you get your product to market, you can solve problems a lot quicker. So it’s not as simple as you split your time between fixing what you’ve got and keep inventing.
The importance of partnerships and teaming up
There’s another part to it, which is partnering and being open to it. There’s also a flow sheets, you know, especially Veolia, we’re rich with product solutions, but if you put it together, one of the things we’re doing is we’re looking at biological aerated filters and ozone as a technology for indirect potable reuse and direct potable reuse.
So that’s a flow sheet based solution. We’re doing some things in micro electronics that are using. Every technology we have, electro deionization, ion exchange, uh, MBR for the wastewater parts of it, evaporation. Those flow sheets have a lot of value to them too.
Antoine Walter: What’s your definition of open innovation?
Glenn Vicevic: It’s not being closed. And I say that, no, but you tend to be comfortable in your own skin and in your own silo, in your own home and in your own laboratory. So what I challenged the team and all my colleagues and myself is to open myself out to understand what others are doing to try to look at different.
Perspectives on it, to speak with others and to put yourself in the position of the, of the other person, be empathetic to the reality that they face. So open innovation is about partnering with other inventors, with universities, with stakeholders, with regulators, with customers, with financiers, in some cases, to find a way to have a different way to approach solving problems in your space.
It’s not about sitting in your laboratory and working harder to invent the next thing. There is a place for that, but there’s also a place to be inspired by others. You know, I tell my team that if you want to be inspired, drive home a different way, take a different train home, break your schedule up so you don’t have those cycles because that forces you to think in a cycle and open innovation is a pragmatic way of opening yourself up to other ideas in different ways.
Different paces, different cadences.
What’s the impact of innovation in the Water Industry?
Antoine Walter: What’s your definition of innovation for impact?
Glenn Vicevic: Well, I think it’s commercialization. If you innovate something and you can’t get it to market, you can’t get it to a customer, you can’t get it to a citizen. It’s really not achieving impact. Impact is about providing the solution or the benefit to the customer or to the user of the product.
So we were talking about with all these great companies and the challenges are, you know, you’ve got to get that solution. to the customer and you’ve got to make money doing it. If you’re an innovator and you’ve got a great new product and you can’t find a way to pay the bills, then really, you’re not going to make it.
It’s really about the invention, but it’s also about commercialization of the invention.
A key for impact: commercialization of Water Tech
Antoine Walter: As a CTO, how far do you go into the commercialization?
Glenn Vicevic: A couple years ago, I formed a team at VWTS called the Technology Incubation Team. That was a recognition that doing new things is hard, even in your own company.
So we recognize that there are certain key transformational initiatives. Like MABR that required a dedicated team who are part of the commercialization. Now, this is a transitory project. You don’t do it forever. You do it for two years. You train your colleagues, you get the information out to the market.
So that’s my contribution to commercialization. And I’m always trying to sell things whenever I meet somebody new. So I guess I help out a little bit on that too. It’s everyone’s job to commercialize. You’ve got to make sure that your customers, stakeholders. podcasters, appreciate the fact that we’re here to solve problems and we’re here to be able to sell our products to customers.
Antoine Walter: You mentioned Paul O’Callaghan‘s definition of MBR as an unicorn market. In that study, he also has several milestones for technology, like the first reference, the first three, the first 10, at which stage do you say that product is now out of his baby steps. It can leave with a sales organization. It doesn’t require my technical expertise anymore.
Glenn Vicevic: I don’t think there’s necessarily a metric. What’s it called? The trough of disillusionment, where after you have your first sale and then you have the period of time when you’re, when you’re developing it, it’s one of those things you don’t know about it before it happens.
Well, what happens, you know, it’s there. I mean, for me, it was mass manufacturing. When we started mass manufacturing the product, not pilot manufacturing, but mass manufacturing it. That’s when it really became something that I could feel that was mature enough. You can also tell by your colleagues, you know, how are your colleagues speaking about it?
How are your customers speaking about it? Is it being discussed by innovators? I don’t think there’s one simple way of doing it. And when you’re there, you know, you’re there.
How can Veolia, as the World’s Largest Water Company fuel innovation’s adoption?
Antoine Walter: That’s one end of the process where you take your technology and you bring it to the market. So the commercialization, the other end of the process is interesting to me as well.
You have a certain power. as Veolia’s powerhouse when it comes to technology. And they are companies which are complementary to what you’re offering. And I guess you must be teaming up with them. I think, for instance, in the innovation forum, we have Pure Control, which I do believe has some partnership with you.
How do you team up with these smaller players? And how do you make it a fair deal for them and you?
Glenn Vicevic: Well, you both have to have something to gain in the process. And if you, as a juggernaut, crush the life out of your partner, the partner will have nothing to gain, and you won’t have a fundamentally beneficial relationship.
So I’m a big believer in reciprocity and value and being honest about when you’re negotiating with someone and you have to have a frank conversation about the value and if you have a innovative technology and you’re the distribution network, you know, there’s value in both and you have to be able to assess that value on both sides.
Takes two to make a deal and you have to come up with a compromise. And I’ve been successful at deals with other companies. I’ve been unsuccessful with deals, but I’ve always tried to be a clear communicator from the beginning and empathetic to the fact that there has to be a value for the innovator as well.
Antoine Walter: You made me curious, what’s your most unsuccessful deal? .
Glenn Vicevic: You knocked me down. I the most unsuccessful deal. I don’t know. Uh, I tried to do some partnering with some companies, so I can’t name that. It was good on paper, but the cultures didn’t mix, so sometimes you could have cultural differences that supersede and just prevent the operation from happening.
It doesn’t mean that your culture’s better or their culture’s better, it’s just that the cultures don’t matter.
The role of places like the BlueTech Forum
Antoine Walter: When we’re on a forum like, like this one, what are you looking for?
Glenn Vicevic: I’m looking for the inspiration. I’m looking for the challenge. Today I was in the forums that I was, when they were talking about some of the people that were pitching their ideas, I was comparing it to our products.
I’m saying, Hmm, if I thought about my product, how would I do the pitch? That’s what I said. If I had two minutes, how would I do the pitch? And that really forces you to think differently because. When you’re in a giant castle, like our big ultrafiltration manufacturing plant in Oroszlán in Hungary, you feel like you’re the king of the world, but you have to really get out and really force you to think more deeply about what you’re doing.
The 1’000 membrane companies riddle
Antoine Walter: You spoke about membranes. So I have to ask you that one. There’s 1000 membrane companies in the world, roughly speaking. I told you, I’m surprised that there are just three MABRs companies, which sounds low, 1000 membrane companies seems. Hi, how is that possible?
Glenn Vicevic: I can only tell you my story. So I started out as a young chemical engineer, a process engineer.
I was working for an entity doesn’t exist anymore in Ontario, in Canada, a research organization, and I was doing research, but I was intrigued by membranes because the whole idea of having this product that you engineered into a separation And you can recover products, you can treat water with, and you don’t need to use chemicals.
It’s elegant. So I think the same reason that a young man, I was 1992, I applied to Xenon Environmental to get a job there as a process engineer. I think that’s the same reason why companies are excited about it. It’s a fascinating space to be in, to mass manufacture something that can serve society in such a great way.
And they also follow the success of companies like DuPont and, uh, Veolia, and you talked about Zenon a lot, they see the story. They see the success that’s happening. They see the opportunity. So it’s exciting. It’s sexy. It’s challenging and there’s success paradigms you can follow.
Will ceramic membranes disrupt polymerics?
Antoine Walter: And will ceramics disrupt the polymerics?
Glenn Vicevic: The first project I ever worked at Zenon was ceramic membranes, 30 years ago! And here we are 30 years later and they are accelerating, but the pace is quite low. It’s just a polite way to say no. I’m just telling you my experiences. I have 30 years ago, I. Worked on ceramics, the pace of polymeric says has really been quite significant, the growth and ceramics have been less.
So, I mean, take that as the measure of the challenge that’s faced the ceramic market.
Veolia’s CTO’s KPI: Vitality
Antoine Walter: As a CTO, what’s your key performance indicator?
Glenn Vicevic: Vitality. Vitality is a financial metric that measures the percent of revenue that comes from things that are new now. The definition of new is subjective. It’s different in different organizations.
In the past, we’ve looked at revenue for a, uh, invention after five years. So I think a measure of vitality is something that’s, uh, that’s a metric I look at. What’s your vitality today? Well, I don’t want to disclose it because I’m not sure I’m allowed to disclose financial reporting metrics. But another measure of it Is the number of activities you have.
We have a stage gate process in VWTS where we manage it. I look at the number of stage gates and I look at the number of releases. So we have a formal process where we release new products. And I look at that and I make sure it’s distributed across the portfolio. It’s regionally distributed. So it’s not one singular, simple metric for it.
It’s kind of like what I was saying before that, you know, when you’re wrong, you don’t know when you’re right, but you know, when you’re wrong.
Does the Lean Start-Up apply to the World’s Largest Water Company?
Antoine Walter: That means you’re measuring the positives because another way would be to say, we need to fail faster. And so you would be counting the fails because that means you’ve dared.
Glenn Vicevic: Yes. Well, you could count the fails. I really, really liked the work that was done on the lean startup by Eric and his team. And I really enjoyed the fail fast mentality. That’s where it came from. It was popularized. It’s easy to fail fast when you’re starting on something. When you’re an established player failing fast.
It’s quite expensive. I would rather that you spent more time on things in the initial stages. You screen them. So they had more chance of success moving forward. You have to accept the fact that failure happens, but you have to understand it. I mentioned that we do measure our stage gates. So we look at our stage gates and we don’t always hit them.
And it’s not a problem not to hit them as long as you understand why you didn’t achieve that stage gate. After all it is R&D. There’s a baked in uncertainty into the work you’re doing.
How much does Veolia spend on R&D?
Antoine Walter: Do you have a ballpark figure as to how much of Veolia’s revenue is spent on R& D?
Glenn Vicevic: Again, I don’t want to disclose that because I’m not sure I should be disclosing it publicly during the, uh, the merger.
Antoine Walter: Usually I look for that number and then I bring it up in the conversation, but I couldn’t find it, so that’s why I tried it. What will tell you that you’ve been successful in five years?
Glenn Vicevic: I’ll be retired. That’s your measurement of how stressed you are. I’m getting, I’m really, really pleased to be working as CTO.
So I have two main missions right now. And my mission is to deliver the accretive revenue and EBIT that comes from the innovation programs that are already in the hopper, build the hopper for the new programs that are in the future, whatever they may be. And, uh, I’m also leading the integration between, uh, the two water technology zones.
I’m leading from the VWTS side. I have a. Very, uh, capable colleague to be leading from the VWT side. We want to complete that merger. We want to build the strongest water zone for Veolia. And I hope I can look at that and be pleased and happy that we were able to achieve everything we wanted to do.
Spoiler: Veolia WTS will be changing name
Antoine Walter: Stupid question. Shouldn’t you be changing name? We will eventually change names. Yes. Okay. But you can’t tell me right now soon.
Glenn Vicevic: I can’t tell you right now what our name is going to be. It’s regardless of what our name is, our mission is clear.
Antoine Walter: Well, thanks a lot for the openness in that deep dive. If that’s fine for you, I’d like to transition to my closing rapid fire questions.
Rapid Fire Questions
It’s time for the rapid fire questions.
Antoine Walter: So in that last section, I’ll get you short questions which lead to short answers. My first one is, what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on and why?
Glenn Vicevic: So I’ll tell you what the most exciting project I ever worked on. And we did a project in Xenon where we provided a water treatment plant for a community of need, Indigenous community of need in Canada.
It was a great project because Xenon paid for all the, uh, The capital, our suppliers, our very valued suppliers provided for, at no charge, the instruments and the pumps and the blowers and the employees dedicated their time. So it was really amazing project and we did it at the Tomagami First Nation in Ontario and I went up there with four of my colleagues and we, uh, we took a week’s vacation and donated to the project.
We commissioned the plant. And we finished the commissioning of the plant on Halloween, I don’t know if you know Halloween is the October 31st holiday where the children come trick or treating and they came trick or treating to the, uh, to the, to the water plant after we had finished it. And it was just a wonderful, wonderful project.
I still look fondly at those days. When was it? 1997, I think? 1998? It was a Z Wing plant.
Antoine Walter: That’s like a very, very cool project. I understand why it’s the most exciting. It was very exciting. Can you name one thing that’s on your in the hard way?
Glenn Vicevic: Yeah, I’ve learned that you have to challenge yourself. So, uh, when I was asked to take over product management activities for electrodialysis and conventional reverse osmosis membranes, I really was not very familiar with it.
I was an expert on, on ultrafiltration hollow fiber. And I remember feeling so useless for six months, not having the same kind of ability to impact, but it made me such a stronger professional. And I remember being tempted to throw in the towel and give up and say, no, I want to go back to the warm of my experience.
So that was the, the, the greatest lesson for me is challenge makes you stronger and better.
Antoine Walter: And that happened only once, is it only?
Glenn Vicevic: No, it happened over and over again when I had another challenge. It’s happening now. As CTO, it’s happening working on all these activities. But, you know, sometimes we want, we want warmth and comfort.
And, uh, it may seem, uh, tempting, but it really doesn’t challenge you. And you do get stronger when you do things. That are, uh, more challenging.
Antoine Walter: What’s the thing you’re doing in your job today that you won’t be doing in 10 years?
Glenn Vicevic: I don’t know. I think maybe traveling, right? I mean, traveling is getting less and less necessary with telecommuting and things like that, although I’m incredibly happy to have a chance to come to events like this, but I think telecommuting and meetings through, uh, through the different software tools is getting a lot better and, uh, the tools are really amazing.
So. Maybe it’ll be less drought.
Antoine Walter: What is the trend to watch out for in the water sector?
Glenn Vicevic: Oh, I think there’s two trends. There’s the recognition of the, uh, potential damaging aspects of micro pollutants and components of concern. What’s the definition of micro pollutants here? It’s not exactly agreed upon, but a micro pollutes are things like opioids and drugs and things that are in sewage water and wastewater.
I mean, P PFASs and P ffo SS are considered to be that also. But really what it is, is recognizing that the simple ways we look at things. B O D C O D, total Cale nitrogen. they don’t serve us anymore. So I think the next trend is going to be that. And then the second one is, is greenhouse gas and the challenge to understand better our solutions that we have and the ones we’re creating and what is the overall impact to the climate and how we can make sure that we account for that when we’re making our decisions.
Antoine Walter: I’d like to make sure I understand you right on that one. When you say that COD, BOD, T k n is not no longer the right indicator. What do you mean by that?
Glenn Vicevic: No, it’s not, no longer the singular indicators. Oh, okay. As an, as a waste, you identify as a wastewater treatment engineers, you’ve done plenty of designs where you’ve looked at things very simplistically about c o d and beauty.
It’s a great tool. It’ll continue to be a great tool. But now we’re, we have better tools that help us understand more broadly and deeply what we have to do to provide water and wastewater treatment. So I think that’s, uh, that’s how things are gonna change for the next generation of engineers. We’ll call them water or wastewater engineers.
How’s that? We’ll start there.
Antoine Walter: That’s great. That’s, that’s a good one. If I instantly became your assistant, what is the very first task you delegate to me?
Glenn Vicevic: Uh, communications. Not just because you’re a podcaster, but one of the things I always ask my colleagues is to help improve communications and, uh, being able to have a vernacular about speaking about complicated things, being able to.
Explain what you’re doing, explain what the company’s doing, and uh, even financially, how you make money in the organization, how you pay the bills is very important, so it would be around communications.
Antoine Walter: And last question, would you have someone to recommend me that I should definitely invite on that microphone as soon as possible?
Glenn Vicevic: Well, uh, I don’t know if you know Slava Libman. He’s, uh, he leads a microelectronics, uh, company, uh, a support company, a R& D company. And I think you might want to talk to Slava about the changes that are happening in the microelectronics water industry as they move through the PPQ and PPT transformation, where they’re even looking at, you know, 10 parts per trillion of contaminants as these microchips get thinner and thinner and smaller and smaller, the challenges are there.
He’d be a great guy. Tell Slava I, uh,
Antoine Walter: That’s a very good recommendation, plus a very good teaser because that PPQ area is really something I’d like to dive into one day. Thanks a lot. If people want to follow up with you, what’s the best place I can redirect them to?
Glenn Vicevic: They can contact me at glen. weisswig at Veolia.
Antoine Walter: Okay, like always the link will be in the show notes and I have to thank you for your support. Great openness in answering my sometimes weird questions. I hope to have a renewed conversation with you in the future to see how that full new Veolia is growing. What’s the new name? Because you teased that you might have an idea.
Glenn Vicevic: I’ll keep that in mind, thanks a lot!