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This article is part of an ongoing series covering startups that have been a part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF) accelerator program.
They say resilience will almost always ensure entrepreneurial success. But while the trait is one that most of us will associate with a tenacious and disciplined person, Lebanon-based tech startup Mruna offers solutions that create resilience on a much larger scale- urban resilience, to be precise. At its core, urban resilience simply refers to the ability of any given urban system to sustainably continue functioning despite external shocks and stresses. That would explain why the startup is named after a loose transliteration of the Arabic word for resilience, مرونة. “Our mission is to develop and implement solutions that earn our namesake,” says Ziad Hussami, co-founder of Mruna. “Technology innovations abound; however, how we exploit them matters most. Many conventional firms end up using technology to more efficiently go about business as usual. We are using technology to exploit latent opportunities in the built environment, and shake up conventional thinking.”
Launched in 2019, Mruna offers a multitude of services catering to urban resilience, and the Beirut-headquarted startup currently has branches in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. Among its services include environmental assessments during project design and construction, data development and decision-making spatial analysis tools that use remote sensing and geographic information systems, as well as the development of environmental management plans necessary for regulatory approval in construction.
Mruna’s most significant offering, however, is BiomWeb, a decentralized nature-based wastewater treatment system. With a design philosophy that “there is no waste in nature,” BiomWeb can also minimize maintenance and operational costs. “The solution is simple and elegant: it treats wastewater onsite with a series of water tanks that imitate aquatic habitats found in nature,” Hussami explains. “It also does not require added chemicals, desludging, or vast infrastructure investment. BiomWeb looks like a bouquet, and reuses the treated wastewater for irrigation. Green thumbs, rejoice!”
Now, the concept of urban resilience is one that is supported by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), a United Nations program that works towards sustainable urban development. In fact, the Urban Resilience Hub -the UN-Habitat’s technical partner for urban resilience- describes it as “the starting point for a sustainable urban future.” But like many urban resilience strategies, the onus of wastewater treatment has traditionally fallen upon the government or public sectors. Mruna, however, is on a mission to change that. “It’s clear that the global future demands for water cannot be met unless water management is revolutionized,” Hussami says. “Public sources of finance alone will not be sufficient to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals [generated on-site at traditional wastewater treatment plants]. The international development community has put the private sector centerstage as a source for additional investments in sustainable development. However, private finance for the water sector has been tepid. BiomWeb offers a solution that enlists the support of the private sector to pick up where the public sector has dropped off.”
Shaped like a bouquet, Mruna’s BiomWeb solution treats wastewater onsite with a series of water tanks that imitate aquatic habitats found in nature. Source: Mruna
Beyond the public-private sector debate, however, there is yet another hurdle that BiomWeb aims to address: the environmental issues created due to centralized wastewater treatment plants. “Our solution achieves both a technology innovation and a business model innovation that aims to decentralize wastewater treatment in the same way Solar City -the Elon Musk-founded organization that offers residential and commercial solar energy- decentralized power generation,” Hussami adds. Now, centralized systems have, for years, been the most common way to treat wastewater in even the most developed urban ecosystems. But among its many side effects is that it extends a considerable carbon footprint. That has led to decentralized wastewater treatments gaining the support of organizations like the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the EPA, decentralized plants can lead to environmental protection and preservation, as well as protection of public healthamong the many reasons the entity deems it “a sensible solution.”
And that appears to be the notion adopted at Mruna as well. “Rather than sell the system at a steep upfront capital cost, which is prohibitively expensive to most potential customers, the objective of our project is to bill clients for the onsite reuse of water as a service provider,” Hussami elaborates. “These will result in small-scale facilities dispersed throughout a country, and allow for independent, locally-maintained facilities that are effectively scalable via a network of partnerships and small and medium enterprise (SME) sales channels. Complemented by the power of the internet of things (IoT), owners can monitor and control the system remotely with a smartphone. Our solution promotes a formidable alliance among nature, IoT, and SMEs that will disrupt centralized sanitation utilities in the same way solar and smart-grids have done to energy utilities.”
Now, amidst all this technical jargon and environmental know-hows, it is important to inform readers about how the concept of BiomWeb dawned upon Hussami in the first place. A few years ago, the co-founder was working as a sustainability consultant, and it was then that he first crossed paths with Abu Dhabi-based real estate company Aldar. “At the time, Aldar, our client, had challenged our team to design a sustainable villa,” Hussami recalls. “But during the design process, it became apparent that to be genuinely sustainable, especially in a region where we rely heavily on fossil fuels for desalination, a circular water infrastructure is needed. But when you work at a corporate consulting company, the timesheet is king! Reimagining infrastructure was not in the budget.”
After that, with one thing leading to another -a journey that Hussami describes as falling into “an accidental rabbit hole”- Hussami was presented with a pleasant twist of fate. “What could have been a passing idea at my cubicle in Abu Dhabi led to a series of events that took me to refugee camps in Lebanon, founding a startup, opening the doors to a manufacturing plant, and returning full circle back to the UAE and Aldar- with whom we have installed our first demo project last year!” he says. Today, as a startup in the pre-seed stage, Mruna has managed to stay afloat via grants and awards. “Our research and development, and the investment into our manufacturing capabilities have been supported by partnerships, grants, and awards including the likes of Japan International Cooperation Agency, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” Hussami shares. “As we turn our attention to the UAE and the GCC, we bring with us a team of four: co-founders and employees experienced in the manufacturing and delivery of our systems. In the near term we aim to use debt financing to deliver projects among our key clients, before we engage with investors to rapidly scale across the region.”
In Mruna’s move to Dubai -a city Hussami describes as “a honey pot for the world’s greatest technological solutions”- the MBRIF has managed to play a critical role. “There are a lot of accelerator programs out there in the world- many, however, seem overwhelmingly concerned with establishing growth as quickly as possible,” Hussami notes. “Yes, growth is important, but the MBRIF also cares about impact, and it offers the patience and enduring support to foster organizations that will fundamentally change an industry, and offer a positive impact to the UAE and the region.”
But even as Hussami works his way through the UAE market, he remains wary that initiating a shift in the ecosystem will require him to flex his entrepreneurial muscles with full might. “Most of the time, I am prodding actors in a conservative sector to think more creatively,” Hussami admits. “To do so, I map the budgetary and resource constraints on behalf of our partners, and walk them through establishing a high-level strategy that aligns with everyone involved. Think about it: if a partnership doesn’t help to achieve both parties’ goals, it’s not going to last very long!”
It is this mindset that would probably explain his approach to technological advances as well- a viewpoint that could serve as an important parting advice for the entrepreneurs reading this piece. “Like us, I think a lot of entrepreneurs at the beginning of their journey fall into the product innovation comfort zone, and invest a lot of energy to showcase the wizardry of their technology, rather than the value it brings to their clients,” Hussami says. “Our success depends on changing perceptions, and promoting acceptance, and shining a light on the latent value of undertaking a new strategy. At the heart, what resonates most is not the business model, or the technology. Our customers have taught us what really matters is not the product specifications… It is the extra warm feeling they get when gifting them a flower plucked from a garden made possible by a strategic partnership!”