drinking water is something westerners take for granted. But not so in
China where Californian company Pionetics hopes to tap growing concerns
about the quality of China's drinking water. It has just made its novel
water treatment system commercially available through a Chinese JV partner.

products to filter drinking water are pretty run-of-the-mill. What is
different about Pionetics' system is that it doesn't use a filter or
harmful chemicals. Instead, it employs a patented ion exchange process
similar to the reverse osmosis system used in industrial desalination

Pionetics claims its product is more efficient than
traditional RO systems, so it takes up only half the space and wastes
one tenth of the water.

This announcement would normally have
gone unnoticed by us if it wasn't for the impressive list of venture
capital firms backing Pionetics and the fact that its founder and CEO,
Gordon Mitchard, was marketing director at JDS Uniphase, the US optical
networking company and fallen dotcom star.

Now, I don't know too
many water-filter companies that can raise $11m in three rounds of
venture funding. I know even less whose CEO has a working knowledge of
dense wavelength multiplexing. So ,one has to assume that the Pionetics
is pitching in a different league to the competition — but how well
will its pitch work in China?

Pionetics argues its system is
ideal for the Chinese market because clean water is a “rare and
expensive commodity”. More to the point, Pionetics claims its
technology is cheaper than RO systems and can better handle low water
pressure — a problem in China, apparently.

China recently
introduced tougher regulations for drinking water, but its expanding
urban population puts huge strains on water supplies. A surprisingly frank Xinhua report
last year revealed that a sample of tap water from a residential area
of Chongqing contained 80 of the 101 pollutants that are now forbidden
in drinking water.

Chongqing plans to spend 4.45bn yuan before
2010 to clean up its water, while nationwide it is estimated a
phenomenal 50bn yuan will need to be spent. Clearly, Pionetics is
hoping that many of China's consumers will prefer not to wait for local
governments to get their act together and will buy its system instead.

local partner, Beijing-based Elantec, claims to be the leading
manufacturer and distributor of residential water treatment systems in
China, with over 8,000 dealers throughout the country. It hopes to sell
140,000 devices in the first two years.

China's rural population
also suffer from bad water and their problems are, if anything, worse.
According to the excellent China Watch, 300m rural residents, nearly a
quarter of China's total population, lack access to clean drinking water. And unlike China's city dwellers, few can afford to splash out on a Pionetics system.