Calling all innovators, United Utilities launches next Innovation Lab

Typhon 4 view inside array

PHOTO CAPTION: Picture shows the inside of Typhon’s ‘reactor’ array. 

It’s back – the ideas incubator programme that launched the 2021 drinking water initiative of the year and delivered the UK’s reigning top Tech Innovator.

United Utilities has opened the tap on its next Innovation Lab – the pioneering accelerator programme with some of the most successful outcomes in the water industry.

Innovation Lab 4.0 will help even more innovative businesses grow and develop by giving them access to United Utilities’ vast expertise, resources and data to test, develop, improve and demonstrate their great ideas.

Previous participants in the programme have gone on to great things.

In May, Cumbrian firm Typhon, who developed the use of UV LEDs to disinfect drinking water, won a UK Water Industry Award for Drinking Water Initiative of the Year. In July, FIDO Tech, the world’s only AI to detect water leaks and their size by analysing the noise they make, was chosen to represent the entire UK tech sector in a global competition organised by KPMG. FIDO has co-located with United Utilities in the North West, where it can develop and test new products every day.

This year, as the UK hosts the COP26 global summit on climate change, one of the areas where United Utilities is keen to hear new ideas is net zero and natural solutions. This category will be co-partnered by the Environment Agency in the North West.

Applications for the fourth 12-week programme open today (Aug 9) and interested companies will only have until mid-October to submit their ideas. Only eight will make the grade.

They will need to prove they have the potential to help the water sector serve its customers better and improve performance in several key areas.

Digital network business: We want our extensive network of water and wastewater assets to be fully connected digitally. This means understanding its condition and performance, bringing all types of information and data from internal and external sources together, connecting legacy assets, and aligning it with our digital strategy and systems to enable prediction and intervention where needed. We have already moved some way on this journey, with our systems thinking programme and advanced work in network management. How do we get to the next level?

Energy efficiency: We use and generate significant amounts of energy from our operations. We want to manage this better in two key areas. First, data aggregation; how can we pull data from existing sources and compile these into a verified and high quality position? Second, how do we operationalise that insight to process change? In this category, we’re not looking for analytics software or visualisation tools.

Net zero and Natural solutions: Like many, United Utilities is on a mission to net zero from our operations. Part of that means using more nature-based solutions instead of heavily industrial systems. But we also need to manage and reduce the impact from our current operations right now. For this category, we are working in partnership with the Environment Agency in the North West, exploring topics like biodiversity, natural flood management and community engagement and many more.

Wildcard: This category is open to any new company whose technology could transform any aspect of United Utilities business that isn’t covered by the other three categories. As a FTSE100 company, with more than 5,000 people and hundreds of sites, we are susceptible to macro trends. What don’t we know? How can we be a great place to work, more productive and even better at what we do?

United Utilities Chief Executive Steve Mogford said: “Four years ago, we set up our Innovation Lab programme with the aim of attracting new entrants to United Utilities, finding ideas that others miss and, by fast-tracking them to trial and adoption, supporting their growth. What a success it’s been. Of the more than 350 new ideas sent in to us from around the world, a significant proportion were previously unheard of in the water sector globally and we have forged some deep and valuable new long-lasting innovation partnerships.

“Forty per cent of those that went on to secure contracts with us have female founders and many have a presence in the North West, showing the Lab’s potential as an engine of growth for the regional economy as well. I’m really looking forward to what this year’s Lab will bring.”

As in previous years, United Utilities will deliver its Innovation Lab programme with corporate innovation specialist, L Marks. L Marks has recently entered a 5-year agreement to act as United Utilities innovation partner after a competitive tendering process.

Daniel Saunders, L Marks Chief Executive, said: “Through the Innovation Lab, United Utilities has consistently demonstrated the positive impact that can be achieved through collaboration with innovative businesses. We are delighted to build on all that we have achieved together over the past three programmes and are excited to both announce our new partnership for the next five years and launch Innovation Lab 4.0. I am certain with our strong foundations that we will see even more impressive results and achieve more year on year.”

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency in the North West said it was looking forward to working in co-partnership with United Utilities in the new Innovation Lab to help find new solutions that met mutual objectives.

Places on the programme are very coveted, as successful applicants will be co-located and work hand-in-glove with United Utilities to test, develop, improve and demonstrate their product/service offering in a live customer environment over a 12-week period.

As well as getting the chance to test their ideas, participants get unprecedented access to subject matter experts and senior leaders. In previous labs, success in the programme has led to long-term commercial partnerships and ongoing product development.

Applications are open until midday on October 22, 2021. For more information about the programme and the four challenge areas, please visit the Innovation Lab website at