Cody Friesen had a big dream, and with Zero Mass Water he is making it come true. His team has figured out how to extract water from air, using nothing more than a solar electricity-powered panel. This is the first real update to the creation of drinking water since the Roman era, he says, and it could lead to everyone getting a perfect cup of water.
Zero Mass Water showed how its Source Hydropanel can pull water out of thin air at CES 2019, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas this week. The panel creates conditions that allow condensation, akin to rain, to happen even in arid climates, said Friesen, who sat down with me in a tent outside of the Las Vegas Convention Center for an interview.
It’s one of those rare technologies that, rather than consuming resources and hurting the environment, actually marshals the abundant resources of air and sunlight and turns them into something we all need — potable water. Friesen told me that his family of four in Arizona can now generate enough water for their needs — 600 bottles a month — from just two Hydropanels.
And Zero Mass Water has now created its own real-time analytics sensor, Source Informed, to measure the production of water in its panels around the world, from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Philippines. Investors include Macquarie Capital Venture Studio with R/GA, which was run by my recently departed friend Gene Mauro, who was the head of the R/GA investment team.
It was an inspiring conversation that reminded me of my favorite science fiction novel, Frank Herbert’s Dune, where the goal was to turn a desert planet into a green one. That is also why I considered this to be one of the best of CES.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Cody Friesen: Each one of these panels is an independent water supply, entirely independent of the grid. No electricity, no piping. Just sunlight and air. Each one produces water, stores it, mineralizes it, ozonates it to make sure it’s sterile. It has an 80PSI pump to deliver to a tap. That all connects to the cloud, so we know in real time that that water is perfect.
All the other water you drink, at some point it fell out of the sky, soaked into the ground, got pumped and treated, and it was either put in a bottle or sent down a pipe. This water is fundamentally different. It’s a sort of digitization of water, in the sense that we can just show up and provide water anywhere.
When we built the Source Hydropanel, it was around this concept of–you’re living in the 21st century with respect to information. All of humanity’s information is in this computer in your pocket. Solar panels allow electricity access globally, independent of infrastructure. And yet with water, we’re living in the Roman era. We have to wait for this stuff to fall from the sky. We talk about droughts and lack of drinking water, which is insane. Could we imagine technology that would enable the same sort of independence as with solar, but do that with water? Through a bunch of technology effort, that became the Source Hydropanels.
My other role, I’m an engineering professor at ASU. I have a PhD in materials science from MIT and I’ve been a professor in materials science since 2004. Most of my background is in renewable energy. I think about things in terms of the renewable energy space, rather than pipes and dams and other infrastructure, that type of mentality.
The conception was, could we perfect water through that process? Those panels not only produce pure water that we mineralize and sterilize, but now, what we’re talking about here is we’ve added a new sensor suite, Source Inform, that closes the loop. In real time we can monitor that the water is in fact sterile and has the mineral set we say it does. That connects to the cloud. In real time, on your app–not only is this thing a first in the sense of perfecting water in all the ways I talked about, but we’re closing that loop. You have a direct feedback loop to know that water is perfect.
VentureBeat: What’s the backstory on how you figured this out, how to produce this water?
Friesen: With my last company, Fluidic Energy, which was the world’s first rechargeable metal-air battery — that’s now across five continents, many countries, and it’s been rebranded NantEnergy — as we were building that I was spending a lot of time in emerging markets, Indonesia and Central America and so on. These are places with 10 feet of rainfall a year. A fisherman who makes a couple hundred dollars a month has this exact phone and he’s reading New York Times articles. He has solar panels on his roof. And yet he might have nothing to drink.
The conception was–when we think about renewable energy, we tend to think about electricity. Could we take a broader view? Renewable energy in its best form is renewable resources. What’s the most constrained resource on the planet? Drinking water. Then it was back to the lab again. How do we think about the problem statement as, “How do we get all the way to perfected water that would work anywhere in the world, that would be the equivalent of the smartphone or the solar panel?”
If you want to make it work anywhere, it couldn’t rely on any type of grid, so it’s solar-powered. It couldn’t rely on high humidity conditions. We’re based in Scottsdale, Arizona. That means you can’t just rely on condensation, making a cold surface and letting it condense out. That works great at 80 percent relative humidity, but not so well at 10 percent. That invokes a materials science approach. And then thinking about–those are good technologies, if we can get it to work, but what, on the other side of that, will make this a human solution? That’s where the connectivity came in, making it transparent as to what the water was. That drove a lot of the thinking behind what became Zero Mass Water.
Where I thought was a relatively easy problem, around using hygroscopic materials that we know absorb water all the way down to sub-one-percent–these materials will take up a bit of water at very low relative humidity. Could we develop those in such a way that they do it very rapidly and consistently, and could we take solar thermal and apply that to those materials to drive what’s called a psychrometric cycle–I didn’t make that up. Psychrometry is the thermodynamics of water vapor in air. I don’t know if you remember something called a wet bulb psychrometer.
But those two sciences, the thermodynamics of water vapor in materials and the thermodynamics of water vapor in air means that panel, every second of the day, is solving an eight-dimensional problem to set the parameters of the panel so that we get condensation even when it’s five percent relative humidity. There’s an ARM processor inside taking a bunch of measurements and solving that set of equations.
The technology bit has many layers between materials, the architecture, the controls, the solar thermal, all of those pieces. On top of that, you have the data layer enabling us to see it all. In our network operating center in Scottsdale we can see all 18 countries where we’re currently installed, across all five continents. Everything from individual homes in Berkeley Hills and New York to schools in Mexico and Vanuatu and western Australia and Kenya. Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon. It’s across a huge range, which is exactly what we were trying to go after.
VentureBeat: How much water can it produce, ideally?
Friesen: Two of these panels, which would be a typical residence in the U.S., would do the equivalent of up to 600 bottles of water a month. It’s a ton of water for a family of four. I have two of these panels at my house with four humans and two dogs and it’s all we drink and cook with. That’s in Scottsdale, a very dry place. In the driest months it’s three to four percent relative humidity. In the wettest months it’s 15-20 percent. But it’s a fundamental shift in the way I think about the water I get.
As an aside, the Sonoran desert has some of the lowest relative humidity of any desert. It gets a lot of rainfall, but it remains very dry because of the way the atmosphere works. A place like the Sahara has 30-40 percent relative humidity, but it just gets almost no rain. The Atacama desert has up to 90 percent relative humidity. It all depends on a bunch of other factors.
VentureBeat: Does the environment around the panel affect how well it works, then, how fast it can make water?
Friesen: The way the science works, we’re creating our own environment internally. When the relative humidity is lower, it’s a longer thermodynamic putt, if you will. Whereas if it’s 95 percent relative humidity, it’s very short. When it’s very dry out, though, when it’s 10 percent relative humidity, you have a ton of sunlight. Those things tend to balance each other out. In a place like Vanuatu or Manila, where the humidity is very high, but you might have spotty clouds or more haze — instead of 1200 watts per square meter, you might be down to 700 — it balances out.
What’s happening inside the panel, the primary materials are absorbing water from the air. Once we release the water from those materials, it goes into a second set of materials that ratchets the humidity up higher in order to drive condensation. We’re raising the dew point internally so it’s always above ambient. There are no cold surfaces inside. It’s all hot surfaces or ambient surfaces.
VentureBeat: Where are you now on your road map?
Friesen: We just closed our series C. That was announced by Breakthrough Energy Ventures. They led that. They came in the previous round as well. That’s obviously very focused on one thing, which is climate change. You’re very familiar with them, I’m sure, Bill Gates’s billion-dollar fund to solve climate change. That was an extraordinarily intensive diligence process. A large number of PhDs work there and peel back all the layers. In addition, they really understand the potential environmental opportunity.
It turns out that five percent of the U.S. carbon footprint is related to treating water in bulk. Somewhere between one and two percent of the global carbon footprint relates directly to bottled water, which is insane. That’s not just rich people in the U.S. drinking bottled water. That’s people in the rest of the water that need bottled water because they don’t have good municipal supply. If you could offset even a reasonable amount of that very dirty water, you fundamentally change the trajectory on climate change.
I mentioned earlier that we’re installed in 18 countries. That’s a bunch of different schools, orphanages, hospitals, fire stations, offices, lots of homes. It’s a very broad range.
VentureBeat: Have you calculated how many other water sources you’ve been able to replace in some way?
Friesen: We haven’t thought about it that way, but I’m sure we could do that calculation. The most important thing from our perspective–the water you put in your body is the important stuff, not what you use to flush the toilet or whatever. We tend to have this interesting perspective in the U.S. around all this potable water, but it’s not quite potable. So what people do is then leapfrog the infrastructure by buying bottled water. What we enable is drinking water that is intrinsically clean, without having to make a dirty choice.
The company is now in four separate car dealerships in Scottsdale. We’ve repurposed several ex-car dealerships. Our main office was a Volvo dealership. Our manufacturing is in a Chrysler dealership. What’s cool about that is it gives us a huge amount of space to build this thing in the U.S., to have the funky elements of creative space that are harder to find in a new city like Phoenix. We’ve got big glass windows and round spaces. That’s been a neat evolution for us.
VentureBeat: How many people are working for the company now?
Friesen: We typically don’t talk about the numbers. I don’t like putting a stake in the ground. But I can say right now that we have about 20 open requisitions today. We’re on a pretty heavy growth trajectory. We’re on a rocket ship.
We almost exclusively work with local partners. That’s a big part of our philosophy. We want local labor, local engagement, local ability to install. You look at the statistics around job growth in the U.S., number one is all around solar installation. There’s an opportunity with these renewable technologies to set a foot down in places in a way that’s positive and drives the economy, rather than the incumbent way of getting water, bottling it and shipping it in. That’s purely extractive, from a point of view of economies. As I say, we have highly localized installation, so those people don’t end up on our payroll, but we’re paying them to do those jobs as contractors.
VentureBeat: It seems almost magical. Do you have a hard time convincing people about the science?
Friesen: Surprisingly, no. When people experience it themselves, they get it instantly. If it’s at your school and you have 10 panels that have been making water for the last year, it’s just a fact.
Early on–maybe fortunately or unfortunately, in our society, everything that looks to change the game always drives questioning and cynicism. “Wait a minute. Why would you go down this path? Nobody else is talking about this.” Yeah, but look at the problem. Look at the opportunity. Look at what we could solve. Early on, there was a ton of that.
When I went to raise the series A, though, it was an absolute dogpile. That was great. We were able to be very thoughtful about who we brought into the cap table and build it the right way. I like to say I curated our cap table. The series A lead is a small group called Arnerich 3×5, out of Portland. It’s a sidecar to a very large wealth management firm, tens of billions of dollars, which is basically an aggregate family office. They’ve been a LP in a bunch of big venture firms. They set up their own sidecar that led the series A. We’ve had a number of other investors that we don’t tend to talk about, unless they’ve chosen to make it public.
Arnerich 3×5 has been a phenomenal partner for us, and then Breakthrough Energy, of course, has 22 of the wealthiest people on the planet thinking about climate change. Here’s an aggregate family office that’s thinking about solving big problems, and here’s a very different aggregate family office on a much different scale that’s helping solve big global problems. When you’re articulating something new, when people finally get it–this particular one resonates.
VentureBeat: How did you turn the technology into a business?
Friesen: When you amortize the cost of the panel, we’re talking about–there’s basically no operating expense. No electricity, almost nothing to replace. It’s within a rounding error of zero. On the capex side, amortized, you’re looking at one-tenth the cost of medium- or low-grade bottled water. That’s if you’re just buying panels outright online, not even doing scaled projects. It just pays. It’s a switch and save situation.
Even when we do water as a service, that kind of financing, we’re still able to allow people to have the equivalent of home office delivery, the big jugs, at one-third the cost, without the backache. And you know where the water came from. It came from right here.
When you go into the value side, you go from something that is not transparent to this. This is my house here. It’s 17 degrees Celsius right now. I have 110 liters in storage. That’s 220 bottles like these. I know that water is optimized. The sterilization is occurring. I have the mineralization I’d want. If I was going to go out and read a book I could turn off the fans with this. This tells me about my savings this year. I’ve already saved $10 this year against other sources of water.
It’s a different experience. The cool thing is, when my kids go to fill their water bottles for school–when you fill that glass or that bottle, you’re holding the result of that renewable energy. If you have solar PV on your roof, you don’t notice a real difference when the lights come on. It’s disconnected. In this case, you can feel that you did something. When you drink it, especially in the desert–this came out of the desert air.
VentureBeat: Why did you call it Zero Mass Water?
Friesen: That’s a cultural reference. The idea is that if we retain our focus on the problem statement level–this goes back to 2004 and my research group thinking about how you build cultures that enable you to solve big problems. So much of academia, so much of the startup world, is focused on a solution. Look at my widget! If you get folks on the widget, you may be solving a very ill-defined problem.
My thesis, going back 15 years now, was that if you had people focus on the problem statement level, eventually the solution would follow. We worked on the problem statement for this company for a couple of years. We continued to hone what we were trying to solve. We went through, I’d say, tens of major directions, and probably hundreds of minor concepts, before we landed on what we arrived at.
We got to a time where I decided to found this company, and it was, “Let’s stick our necks out a bit and name the company after culture.” As you know, culture eats strategy for lunch. I want everyone in this company to think about culture first. We have seven cultural elements, and that’s something almost anybody in the company could recite. Lead with love. Think zero mass. Build aggressively for divergence. Demand yes-if, reject no-because.
That last one is about–“Hey, I’ve got this great idea!” “No, because that breaks the laws of physics.” Instead you say, “Yes, if it didn’t break the laws of physics.” Now we’re on the whiteboard thinking about the nugget of the idea that I was thinking of. That goes to supply chain and everything else, that element.
Elements around–how do we retain focus within the organization? We don’t have any meetings, company-wide, from 10AM to 3PM. That’s focus time. No interruptions. I wouldn’t go up to someone in the middle of the day and say, “Hey, what are you working on?” They’re in creative mode and suddenly their concentration is broken. We know from literature that it takes about 45 minutes to get back to a state of flow after you’ve been interrupted.
Thinking about culture, thinking about things at the problem statement level, enables us to go and solve, I think, one of the grandest problems facing humanity.
VentureBeat: Is this on some level a charitable thing, or is it a great business opportunity?
Friesen: Both of those can exist at the same time. I’d argue that the best kind of business is one–I’m a big fan of John Mackey’s conscious capitalism movement. It’s this concept that, in fact, you can be a capitalist and think about how you do fundamental good.
Zero Mass, that comes out in a few ways. The product itself is a fundamental good. Trolls on the internet saying bad things about us, it doesn’t even enter our realm of existence. The fundamental good ends up being about people. A part of our profits goes to donating to the bottom billion. Anybody who wants to donate panels to a good cause, we’ll do that at cost.
For example, back in June, I got to know the founder of an organization called the Samburu Girls Foundation in Kenya. You go north of Nairobi, there’s the Maasai Mara, and then north of that is another valley region called Samburu. In that region they perform FGM on girls, child marriage, and other things. I spoke to her in April and she told me that she’s rescued more than a thousand girls. There are 300 girls there at any given time. They come in and get a high school education, often they go off to college, and so on. They gain equity and agency in life, where before they were property. And yet every day they have to leave the compound and walk two miles to get to the river and collect water. There’s a danger of cholera and other things.
On that call I said, “Don’t even think about it. We’ll come in.” Took a deep breath and thought about what we were going to do. In June we ended up sending 40 panels and installing an array that means those girls don’t have to walk for their drinking water. We’re at the very beginning of what we’re building. But that doesn’t mean we can’t serve those that need us most, all the way up to those that want us most.
Guys in the Berkeley Hills that have lots of money and want an off-grid solution, or someone in hurricane alley–when Florence went through we had panels at homes in South Carolina. We have data. They’re making water. Hurricane Florence hits, no water. Next day, making water again. And we can see the family pumped water all the way through. They had an uninterruptible water supply, just like a UPS for power.
This is one of those companies–as the founder I just pinch myself, that I get to be along for this ride. It’s way better than I thought it would be. Tomorrow morning we’ll have an event here where the mayor of Flint, Dr. Karen Weaver, will be here, and Lupe Fiasco, Grammy Award-winning artist. They’ll be talking about a new partnership we’re forming with the city of Flint to solve that challenge. That’s been something we’ve spent a lot of time on doing right. How many people have said, “We’re helping Flint!” and just flung something out into the ether? Yet we still have the challenge.
From my perspective, the technology is two percent. The other 98 percent is the human part. How do we bring people along? How do we build community? How do we engage the right people so we’re doing good? You asked about how to turn this into a good business. I think that’s ultimately what it’s about. As a technologist, you realize that you’re a miniscule part of a solution.
VentureBeat: Are you thinking about how to deploy these things at a large scale? How long might something like Flint take?
Friesen: We have no limitations in manufacturing capacity. It’s always limitations on either logistics or capital. As long as you can keep it in one of those two buckets, we can find our way. We’re able to do panels anywhere from two at a time to thousands at a time. You go from “residential solar,” a couple of panels, all the way up to utility-scale solar where you’re talking about thousands of panels. That full range allows you to do the amount of water that would be prescribed for a household, up to schools and industrial locations and much larger things.
VentureBeat: Do you have any competitors, or is it just you?
Friesen: There have been atmospheric water generators forever. At any given time there are about 10 companies out there where you plug in and they have a refrigerator that chills the air and creates condensation. When you see water dripping off your air conditioner, congratulations, that’s making water from air. That’s an important contributor to everyone thinking about how we fix water, but what we wanted to think about is, how do we do this in a way that works everywhere, for every person? There are no competitors directly from that perspective.
About a year ago a combined MIT and Berkeley team, Evelyn Wang at MIT and Omar Yaghi at Berkeley, developed some materials, metal-organic frameworks, that they claim will take water out of the air down to 20 percent relative humidity. They claim that’s the lowest relative humidity that anybody’s been able to do. Meanwhile, we’ve been in the field for several years already at much lower relative humidity producing water with our material.
What I love about those guys getting involved is it obviously drives a lot of interest from the media and so on. They’re smart people. They’ll continue to advance, and hopefully we’ll be looking at some of the same things over time. Materials is a part of this. It’s not the whole thing. So no competitors directly, but lots of people thinking about water, which is good.
VentureBeat: It reminds me of the novel Dune.
Friesen: We also hear about Tatooine a lot, especially from my 11-year-old son. [laughs] It’s interesting, because some of the best ideas are not new ideas. They’re just re-framing the problem statement. The data say there’s 10^17 kilograms of water vapor in the troposphere, which is more water than all the rivers on the planet. There’s lots of water vapor there, more than we could ever consume. It cycles through the atmosphere every six days.
That resource is there, and then we have this great big ball of fire in the sky that’s another big resource. If we could bring those two things together in a way that produces good water, that should enable us to do the things we’ve done in solar. Now we can make electricity for cheaper than coal. If you said that 10 years ago, people would have laughed. Maybe even five years ago, or today in some places. But it’s true. There’s an absolute opportunity for Source Hydropanels to produce water at a cost structure in the long term that’s below any other potable water supply.
VentureBeat: Are we talking about possibly making the deserts green?
Friesen: I hope, from a water consumption perspective, that’s true. I hope not from an ecological perspective. I hope we’d be smarter about what we do with that water. For example, in the American west–Jefferson said that east of the Mississippi is fundamentally wet, west of the Mississippi is fundamentally dry. What happened when people moved west is we all settled in the drainages, where the rivers are, and pushed animals out. All across the western United States, wildlife managers put in what they call water tanks, holes in the ground that fill up with rainwater, so animals could drink from that. You’ve seen the end result in L.A., where the cougars and bears come into town because there’s nothing to drink.
One thing we’ve done as another way of showing the paradigm, we’ve installed an array in the middle of the desert that feeds a catchment at midnight every night, and there’s a game camera looking at the bobcats and mountain lions and deer, all these animals coming to drink in the middle of night. Here’s this puddle of water that just arrives, like an artesian spring. If you want to think about the full-on paradigm shift — cut all the wires, get away from the buildings, light out for the middle of nowhere with nothing but Saguaro cactus around — you can have water in that place.
I can show you a video. The panels are sitting right here. You can see the leg of one of them here. I’ve buried the line under here, and it’s pumped up to the catchment. This bobcat comes by with a mouse in its mouth. She walks up, and for whatever reason, she drops the mouse into the water. Then she sees her shadow or reflection. All this crazy stuff happens at this water hole. This badger here came once, and then never came back for about six months. Then it started coming every night. Just to give you a sense of scale, that rock is a foot in diameter. This badger is about that big, and they’re not nice animals.
Again, we built that array to continue to evidence what it is we’re talking about. We recognize–you came on and asked, “Don’t people just not believe you?” We have to keep layering it in. We’re showing video evidence of people drinking. We’re having people talk about us who aren’t us, whether it’s the people in Samburu, or the Asian Development Bank that funded the Vanuatu schools. They did their own video production on that project. Ayala Hotels in Manila. The list goes on. If those people are talking about our work, then it’s not us claiming anything. It’s the people that are using it.
VentureBeat: This ability to sense the quality of the water, has that helped accelerate the process?
Friesen: One of the things that’s important to us is that–we’ll never talk about the future as a company. As a rule we only talk about the present, because that’s the future for everyone else. The main reason for that is, we have to build credibility with something that’s so new, such a new paradigm. You can talk about crazy things all day long, but that’s not a business. It’s certainly not a paradigm shift.
How do we think about building in systems that continue to evidence what it is we’re saying we do? And not just evidence at large, but also to you, when you see these panels. “Oh, I know what this. I know what this water is. I know it’s what you’ve told me it is.”
VentureBeat: You can see an impact now. How long until you see the kind of much larger impact that you want? How long until your work is done?
Friesen: [laughs] My answer is super platitudinous, but it’s also honest. I think of this as building a multi-generational business. This is something that should be enduring. All of our decisions are made on that basis. We’re not trying to build a flash in the pan.
I consider myself infinitely wealthy, meaning that even if you moved the decimal point over several notches, nothing about my life would change. I’m not gonna go buy a jet. I have plenty of stuff. If that’s true, then what we’re building is really about changing the world. That’s how I fulfill my need to do something. I think of this business as perfecting water. Every year we’ll keep elevating the bar of what perfecting water is.
Since 2007, Apple keeps coming out with a new iPhone, and at least up until recently they’ve continually redefined what the ideal smartphone is. If we can do that same thing in water, where we keep elevating the bar every year, we’ll not only continue to squash out the crisis around water–one person dies from a waterborne illness every 10 seconds. Women and girls in Africa alone spend 40 billion hours a year fetching water. Half of all hospital beds in the world are occupied by waterborne illness. 750 water main breaks a day in the U.S. The list goes on and on. There are 11 Flints at any given time. How do we finally go from the Roman era to the equivalent of the smartphone for water? Winning, for us, is getting to that place.
We recognize that the only way we’ll come within shooting distance of that goal is with phenomenal partners, with ecosystem-building, with the force multipliers that are other people. Those who need the solution or those that want to help continue to enhance the solution. We’re thinking about this as building a bigger tent, not as trying to be the only one that does something. Being the one that does something is a very lonely thing to do.