PN 12/22 Ofwat’s Water Breakthrough Challenge awards £5m to accelerate tech solutions to leaks, pollution and water quality

  • £5.2m awarded to innovative projects to improve water quality, environmental impact and services for consumers.
  • 13 projects using robotics, smart sensors, open data and novel engineering have been awarded prizes of between £155,000 and £760,000.
  • Winning projects see collaborations between water companies, universities, energy networks and hi-tech innovators.
  • Today’s announcement coincides with World Water Day and up to a further £34m will be awarded later in the spring for larger scale projects driving long-reaching benefits.

22 March 2022 (London) – On World Water Day, the English and Welsh water regulator, Ofwat, has awarded £5.2m to innovative projects using new technology and cross-sector collaborations to improve water quality, reduce pollution and enhance services for consumers.

Between now and the summer, the Water Breakthrough Challenge will award up to £39m to projects across England and Wales. The Water Breakthrough Challenge is part of a series of competitions from Ofwat, and run by Nesta Challenges with Arup and Isle Utilities, designed to drive innovation and collaboration in the sector to benefit individuals, society and the environment.

13 projects will benefit from the first tranche of awards announced today, known as the “Catalyst Stream”.

Improving water and river quality

Several innovations to improve water quality have been awarded prizes. Severn Trent, working with California-based Microvi Biotechnologies and Cranfield University, has been awarded £760,000 to begin work on a “biocatalyst solution” that uses microorganisms that remove ammonia from wastewater without generating nitrous oxide emissions (a gas 300 times more potent than CO2).

“Tapwater Forensics” from a consortium of seven water companies and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has been awarded £370,000 to meet its aim of establishing the UK as a leader in genetic sequencing of drinking water to revolutionise the ability to monitor and investigate water quality failures in the same way DNA testing revolutionised medicine and scientific research.

And £446,000 has been awarded to “SuPR Loofah” by Northumbrian Water, Welsh Water, the University of Newcastle and the University of Northumbria. The project removes and recovers phosphorous run-off from agricultural fertilisers using engineered micro-algae. This prevents it causing damaging algal blooms and uncontrolled outbreaks of weeds in watercourses which can suffocate natural ecosystems. Phosphorous is an essential but finite energy-intensive chemical resource which is diminishing – this new circular approach would see it re-used as fertiliser in agriculture. It can also reduce imports of phosphorus for farming and its associated emissions from mining and transportation.

Fixing leaks and preventing pollution

In addition, projects that could contribute to preventing leaks from water pipes and sewers, and keeping associated repair costs down, have received £400,000. Yorkshire Water’s “Designer Liner” which can be retrofitted into existing water pipes, prevents leaks and extends the life of national water infrastructure. It in turn reduces the amount of water abstracted (i.e. removed) from watercourses which should also cut energy usage and costs to customers.

Meanwhile, “Pipebots” from Thames Water, the University of Sheffield and Synthotech Ltd are robots that can monitor sewer rising mains from the inside. Too often, rising main faults only come to light should they burst. The robot monitors enable preventative inspections while the pipe is in use to minimise the risk of pollution spills by identifying faults before a pipe ever fails.

Harry Armstrong, Director, Ofwat said:

“It is great to see the water sector deliver more exciting and impactful projects through this round of Ofwat’s Water Breakthrough Challenge. The winners all have huge potential to benefit people, society and the natural environment. I’m excited to see these projects become reality and start to make a real difference in the way we do things.”

Myrtle Dawes, Solution Centre Director of the Net Zero Technology Centre and chair of the Water Breakthrough Challenge Catalyst Stream judging panel said:

“It’s a pivotal moment for the water sector – meeting the challenges of climate change head on and making good on promises of improved water quality across the water system at pace. There is no silver bullet to fix these challenges – they all require multiple approaches and solutions like those awarded funding today.”

More to come

The Water Breakthrough Challenge is a £39 million competition, which aims to bring forward industry-leading innovation that deliver benefits for water customers, society, and the environment, split into two streams, the £5.2m Catalyst Stream and the Transform Stream which will award up to £34m. They are both part of Ofwat’s £200m Water Innovation Fund to grow the water sector’s capacity to innovate, enabling it to better meet the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment. The Transform Stream will award funding later in the spring.

Both streams were open to initiatives aligned with one or more of Ofwat’s five strategic innovation themes. Initiatives submitted to the Catalyst stream were called on, at a minimum, to reach the stage of prototyping and testing some components of their solution with real users; while initiatives in the Transform stream should go beyond this and deliver tangible benefits for customers, society and the environment. The Transform stream winners will be announced later in the Spring.

To find out more, visit


Notes to editors

For all media enquiries contact: Robyn Margetts, [email protected] OR Andrew McKay, [email protected]

About the 13 winners of the Water Breakthrough Challenge Catalyst Stream

  • A HERU for Screenings – Led by Severn Trent – £198,144
    The Home Energy Recovery Unit (HERU) is a waste recovery system developed to manage domestic and commercial waste on site. About the size of a chest freezer, this solution uses heat pipe technology developed from satellites, to turn screenings into energy, that can be recycled. It’s an innovative solution to a growing and challenging waste problem for the UK water industry.
  • Catalysing a NET-ZERO future – Led by Severn Trent – £762,447
    One of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from the water industry is nitrous oxide – 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s produced by bacteria that plays a vital role in removing toxic ammonia from wastewater. If ammonia isn’t removed, it damages aquatic life. Recently researchers have identified naturally occurring bacteria that can remove ammonia without producing nitrous oxide but these don’t ordinarily thrive in treatment plants. This project will develop innovative techniques for capturing these game-changing bacteria and putting them to work in our existing treatment processes.
  • Defusing the nitrate timebomb – Led by Portsmouth Water – £154,800
    Nitrate pollution has long been a threat to Chalk drinking water and dependent environments in Southern England. To reduce nitrate in drinking water requires expensive treatment or changes in farming practice. Water companies work with farmers to reduce nitrate inputs, but lack detailed knowledge of where to focus efforts for efficient, rapid results.  The project will develop modelling software that can predict concentrations throughout the Chalk so that land use options can be tested to select those that deliver efficient nitrate reduction.  This will reduce treatment costs and energy consumption and help to protect habitats and biodiversity.
  • Designer Liner – Led by Yorkshire Water – £173,880
    Pipe lining is 50% cheaper than the more traditional method of digging up and replacing broken pipes. It also generates less carbon and is less disruptive for customers because there’s no need to dig up the road. There’s a gap in the current market to provide a lining solution fit for a 21st century water network. Water companies, led by Yorkshire Water, will collaborate to create a lining solution for clean water pipes with a much longer lifespan than existing linings and with the potential to include other technologies too. This will make water networks more resilient for the future and equip them to become smarter than ever before.
  • Pipebots for rising mains – Led by Thames Water – £230,930
    Rising mains are sewage pipes which are pressurised so sewage can be pumped up hills to be treated at sewage works. It is difficult to survey these pipes because they are hard to access and to shut off so they can be inspected internally. Using robots on rising mains will help the industry spot, predict and fix pipes which are deteriorating before they burst preventing pollutions to the environment. This project will test the use of robots to assess the internal condition of these types of pipes to radically change the way how the industry takes care of this type of infrastructure. The water industry already uses human-controlled robots to assess its partially filled sewer tunnels and sewers which use gravity to move sewage. This project will pave the way for the autonomous robotics technology to be used in fully pressurised sewer pipes.
  • Support For All – Led by Northumbrian Water – £632,270
    “Support for All” will involve designing, building and delivering a hub to securely host data on customers in vulnerable circumstances – when submitted once, the data can then be shared with other relevant utilities. Each utility company has Priority Services Registers of customers requiring additional support, and customers must currently register with each utility separately – inaccurate data means additional support isn’t always offered. The new solution allows customers to ‘tell us once’, informing all relevant utility companies of the support they need. The aim is to develop a pilot of a working model, implement this at a regional level and then scale nationally.
  • SuPR Loofah (Sustainable Phosphorus Recovery) – Led by Northumbrian Water – £445,577
    Northumbrian Water, with Northumbria University, the University of Newcastle, and Welsh Water will trial the use of an innovative loofah to remove and recover phosphorous from wastewater. This prevents it from causing damaging algal blooms, which can suffocate local ecosystems. This innovative ‘SuPR Loofah’ treatment system will place micro-algae on a loofah material, and use this to capture phosphorous from wastewater. As well as being a more affordable and sustainable process to wastewater treatment, this world-leading circular approach will generate a vital form of phosphorous which can be used as fertiliser.
  • Tap Water Forensics – Led by Severn Trent – £371,215
    Our project will develop the use of genetic sequencing in drinking water treatment. Unlike current tests, genetic sequencing can determine all the bacterial species present in water. This will significantly improve the speed and accuracy of water quality investigations. We hope customers in England and Wales will benefit from a £3-5m/year reduction in bills, enabled by improve efficiency in water quality investigations; as well as a reduction in unplanned remedial work and disruption to supplies.
  • Sub-Seasonal Forecasting to Improve Operational Decision Making – Led by Thames Water – £678,750
    This project will create a reliable weather impact modelling and forecasting system which will help water companies forecast weather events beyond 10-14 days, up to 4-6 weeks ahead. These systems will improve water companies’ understanding of how the weather impacts their water and wastewater management. Using these systems will improve their resourcing and operational management capabilities for areas at risk from severe weather events, for example, rapid changes in customer demand for water and regions which are prone to surface water flooding.
  • Incentivising community-centric rainwater management – Led by Thames Water – £225,000
    Thames Water has partnered with Anglian Water, South West Water, Indepen, Isle Utilities and Our Rainwater to encourage communities in their regions to adopt rainwater capture tools and solutions, to help prevent rainwater from entering the sewer network. When it rains heavily, excess water runs off people’s homes and driveways and enters the sewer network which can contribute to the network being overwhelmed and lead to surface water flooding, sewer flooding and sewage discharges. The project will encourage the widespread adoption of rainwater capture methods at a grass roots level. It will test and measure how communities can be incentivised to take up these measures and help protect the environment.
  • Unlocking bioresource market growth using a collaborative decision support tool – led by Anglian Water – £314,316
    Anglian Water will work with four water companies to develop a collaborative strategic planning capability, underpinned by Business Modelling Associates’ adaptive systems planning software. This will identify opportunities to trade bioresources across existing assets and determine the optimal blend of future inter-company investments; tackling common challenges and maximising environmental and customer value.
  • Unlocking digital twins – Led by Thames Water – £334,800
    A ‘digital twin’ is a virtual representation of a water company’s physical assets or processes, for example a digital version of its pipe network and water treatment process. Water companies use these digital twins to unlock new data-driven innovations, which can improve their services and how they manage their networks for the benefit of customers. More companies are using digital twins but there is no agreed standard model and process for creating them, which has the potential to create inefficiencies, reduce the value delivered by these systems and increase costs. This project will create standards to support consistent digital twins throughout the industry.
  • Water Quality As-A-Service Treatment-2-Tap – Led by Northumbrian Water – £714,880
    Treatment-to-Tap will demonstrate a step-change in the management of the water quality (WQ) for customers. By the end of the project, Northumbrian Water will be operating Europe’s largest integrated network of WQ and leakage management sensors and analytics software. Managing WQ is an increasing challenge due to ageing networks serving a growing population. This new behavioural science research will assess how best to engage and support customers when real-time WQ insight is available – meaning water company operations will be more intimately connected to customers than ever. A consortium of five water companies will all input to define and validate best practice on how new insights can be built into proactive operations. A new business model template will then enable all water companies to see how they can share risk and scope with the supply chain to deliver at scale and pace for least cost and best service to the customer.

Additional Quotes

Holly Jamieson, Director of Development and New Frontiers, Nesta Challenges said:

“The Water Breakthrough Challenge incentivises new thinking and new approaches to research, development and delivery, driving change for the benefit of water customers, water quality and the wider environment. These innovative collaborations established within and beyond the water sector will mean the benefits of the technological breakthrough will be felt widely across the country.”

Caroline Wadsworth, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Isle Utilities said

“Over the last year we’ve seen a real step change in innovation ambition across the water sector and it’s exciting to see that continue in the wide range of entries supported through the Water Breakthrough Challenge Catalyst stream this time round.

“The water sector in England and Wales is demonstrating its capacity to drive change and secure a more sustainable, resilient future for the communities they serve and the environments within which they operate. I’m excited to see the projects develop and wish the delivery teams luck in their endeavours.”

About Ofwat’s Innovation Fund and the Water Breakthrough Challenge

Ofwat has established a £200 million Innovation Fund to grow the water sector’s capacity to innovate, enabling it to better meet the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment. It is encouraging new ways of working that go beyond business-as-usual innovation practices in the water industry, in particular, increasing and improving collaboration and building partnerships from within and outside the water sector.

Entries were encouraged from water companies in England and Wales, alongside partnerships with universities and institutes, retailers, start-ups, technology companies, charities, and small businesses in sectors such as energy, manufacturing, health, or financial services.

The second Water Breakthrough Challenge is run by Ofwat and Nesta Challenges in partnership with Arup and Isle Utilities and is the third in a series of competitions delivered through the Fund following the Innovation in Water Challenge and first Water Breakthrough Challenge last year.

The Catalyst Stream is awarding  £5.2 million to entries seeking funding of between £100,000 and £1 million. The Transform Stream will award up to £34 million to entries seeking funding of between £1 million and £10 million.

To contact Ofwat’s press office, please call 07458 126271 

About Nesta and Nesta Challenges

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills, and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society. We’ve spent over 20 years working out the best ways to make change happen through research and experimenting, and we’ve applied that to our work in innovation policy, health, education, government innovation and the creative economy and arts.

Within Nesta, Nesta Challenges exists to design and run challenge prizes that help solve pressing problems that lack solutions. We shine a spotlight where it matters and incentivise people to solve these issues. We are independent supporters of change to help communities thrive and inspire the best placed, most diverse groups of people around the world to act.

We support the boldest and bravest ideas to become real and seed long term change to advance society and build a better future for everyone. We are part of the innovation foundation, Nesta. We are challengers. We are innovators. We are game changers.

About Arup

Arup is an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists, working across every aspect of today’s built environment. Together we help our clients solve their most complex challenges – turning exciting ideas into tangible reality as we strive to find a better way and shape a better world. With a community of over 1700 water professionals, Arup is leading global thinking across key areas like innovation, resilience, net zero carbon and sustainable water management.

About Isle Utilities

Isle is a global team of independent scientists, engineers, business and regulatory experts with a common drive to make a positive environmental, social and economic impact through the advancement of innovative technologies, solutions and practices.