What problem are you aiming to solve with Mrüna?
Pliny the Elder called the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s sewer system [constructed around 600 BC], the city’s greatest architectural achievement. Remarkably, it’s still in use today. And what is even more remarkable is that we continue to use the same strategy everywhere: put the wastewater under the ground and send it as far away and as quickly as possible. When cities were small, that made sense. But now, cities are big, and keep getting bigger, while our groundwater is being used up. Everywhere in the world, wastewater is the only water resource that increases every year – by 8.8% in Dubai.
The existing centralised wastewater treatment systems have a hard time keeping up with the growth of the cities, they have a very high carbon footprint, and they are not efficient. In the UAE, due to shallow groundwater, salty water is coming into the sewer, which means that, by the time wastewater gets to the station, it can’t be reused anymore. And this infrastructure is expensive – 80% of the cost goes into the sewer network; one kilometre of sewer costs AED 1.4 million.
Meanwhile, developers want to build large, aspirational, sustainable communities; so, they need big, luscious landscaping. But at the same time, their infrastructures costs, water consumption and carbon footprint are actually going up. These things are in competition, so they really have to address water.
We have to go from this linear model to a circular one, reusing and recharging water in a smart effective way.
How does your solution work?
Our concept, BiomWeb, is a centralised management of a decentralised, nature-based infrastructure that blends in with the landscaping.
Instead of a massive infrastructure requiring big smelly trucks shuttling waste from one side of the city to the other, or oversized stations dumping large quantities of water all at once, we have a lot of small stations spread around the location, monitored and controlled remotely 24/7 through a dashboard, with a smart-dosing system that distributes water over time based on analytics and patterns.
Aquatic plants’ roots provide surface area for bacteria and fungi to metabolise the waste, leaving clean water that can be used for irrigation. Why take wastewater, clean it, and then add fertiliser again to water plants? BiomWeb doesn’t require any added chemicals, desludging, or heavy infrastructure, and it looks like a bouquet. Besides, once you integrate it into landscaping, you can exploit unutilised spaces.
How did you develop this product?
I was working at [sustainability engineering consulting firm] AECOM and Aldar, one of our key clients, would often ask us how to make certain developments more sustainable. I realised that, although building certifications start with what is above the ground, we should actually start in the ground and with how we design our utilities. I was looking at nature-based technologies at ADNEC and thought they could be improved upon, so I quit my job and started sandboxing in 2017 with UNICEF in Lebanon, working on the Syrian refugee camps.
We got funding and grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, [Lebanese accelerator] Berytech, Seedstars, Sheraa, and we won the G20’s InfraChallenge, a global infrastructure innovation competition. We were able to establish our own manufacturing plant in Lebanon and started co-designing some of the systems with UNICEF.
We registered Mrüna in the UAE in 2019 and we were part of the first Aldar’s Scale Up programme. Aldar selected BiomWeb to replace trucking sewage by recycling water onsite and reusing it for irrigation. We report to them their carbon savings each month against a monthly fee.
Are you facing any resistance to this different way of managing wastewater?
Even though the client – the developer – really wants it, the engineering consultants actually make the decision, and they’ll often try to hide behind regulation because they are the ones taking on the risk if they approve it, and they get no benefit from deviating from business as usual. This is why sharing the risk is important. At Aldar Riyadh City, for example, we took ownership of all the risk by offering our system as a service. You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.
Developers are in the market for clean water, getting rid of the sewage, and reducing their carbon footprint and business’ usual costs. They need to focus on building the city, not managing the wastewater treatment system; so, we’re acting like a utility.
What are the next steps for Mrüna?
Today, we’re capital intensive upfront and high margin, not really scalable. We want to get into just selling to new communities. It’ll be a little lower margin but way more scalable. And then, we could probably sell internationally.
We want to reimagine the complete wastewater infrastructure, transitioning within the next five years from temporary sites to existing properties and, in the long term, green communities, incorporating the system into the landscaping as a circular wastewater model. We weren’t expecting to, but we have already started having conversations.