Water may not be the first that springs to mind when thinking about the next big arena for inno­va­tion in America. For much of the country, water is a com­mon­place part of life, easily acces­sible from the tap.

Yet it’s not that simple. Infra­struc­ture that’s long deliv­ered clean water to com­mu­ni­ties across the nation is rapidly aging, and there are still parts of the world where clean water is dif­fi­cult or impos­sible to obtain. Those chal­lenges and numerous others have Mass­a­chu­setts busi­ness, pol­i­cy­makers, and aca­d­e­mics exploring new oppor­tu­ni­ties to inno­vate and lead an emerging market.

I would argue that we have some of the best and brightest minds working here in the Com­mon­wealth, but we don’t have the mech­a­nism to bring us all together,” said Earl Jones, a partner at Lib­er­a­tion Cap­ital. “This is a really pow­erful and influ­en­tial group, one that sets the table for what needs to be done.”

Jones served as chair of the Sym­po­sium on Water Inno­va­tion in Mass­a­chu­setts, or SWIM, held Wednesday in Northeastern’s Curry Stu­dent Center and spon­sored by the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness, with orga­ni­za­tion by fac­ulty mem­bers Ron Whit­field and Mar­jorie Platt.

Water already rep­re­sents a multi-​​billion industry in Mass­a­chu­setts. SWIM’s goal was to bring together the top industry, aca­d­emic, and gov­ern­ment minds to develop a new water cluster, sim­ilar to the tech­nology cor­ridor along Route 128 or the life sci­ences industry in Cam­bridge and Boston.

Mass­a­chu­setts is posi­tioned to become a leader in water inno­va­tion not just in the United States but on a global level, said Gov. Deval Patrick, who deliv­ered opening remarks at the con­fer­ence. Just as invest­ment in edu­ca­tion, inno­va­tion, and infra­struc­ture have boosted fields like life sci­ences, biotech, and dig­ital tech­nolo­gies, so too can policy boost indus­tries ded­i­cated to keeping water clean, safe, and acces­sible, he said.

We have an unusual con­cen­tra­tion of brain­power here,” Patrick said. “We have to cul­ti­vate it.”

The water industry, Patrick said, is frag­mented across a number of spe­cial­ized fields, which need to work together to develop a cluster that can advo­cate for its col­lec­tive inter­ests and draw new talent to the region. “Mass­a­chu­setts is now at the center of the clean energy rev­o­lu­tion and we have the poten­tial to do the same with water inno­va­tion,” he said.

Mel Bern­stein, the senior vice provost for research and grad­uate edu­ca­tion at North­eastern, said stu­dents play a key role to guiding inno­va­tion in fields like water, merging their real-​​world expe­ri­ence with a drive to develop new technologies.

We’re preparing the next gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents to think about these prob­lems,” Bern­stein said.

Mel Bern­stein is the university’s senior vice provost for research and grad­uate research. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

One of those stu­dents prompting inno­va­tion is Antonio Rufo, a rising senior studying elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering. He co-​​founded Fil­terLight, a com­pany that devel­oped a tech­nology that uses a crank-​​powered LED to improve access to clean, drink­able water.

The device was awarded an Excel­lence in Inno­va­tion at RISE, Northeastern’s annual research expo­si­tion held this spring; the prize came with $1,000, which the student-​​researchers rein­vested into product devel­op­ment. Now, Rufo and his part­ners are working to develop part­ner­ships that can help them bring their inven­tion into the field, an oppor­tu­nity pre­sented to them by the SWIM event.

We have the proof of con­cept and we know we have some­thing that works,” Rufo said. “Now we’re looking for investors and con­nec­tions so we can get this out into the market. This is a group of people with the con­nec­tions that can help us do that.”

Along­side Fil­terLight at SWIM’s expo­si­tion high­lighting work at the fore­front of water inno­va­tion were two aca­d­emic endeavors from the Col­lege of Engi­neering. Two stu­dents from the Puerto Rico Test­site for Exploring Con­t­a­m­i­na­tion Threats (PROTECT), doc­toral stu­dent Ali Ciblak and postdoc Lily Rajic, showcased work on solar-​​powered elec­tro­chem­ical tech­nolo­gies for ground­water treat­ment. Researchers Annalisa Onnis-​​Hayden and Loretta Fer­nandez pre­sented their work, devel­oped in asso­ciate pro­fessor April Gu’s lab, which focuses on bio­log­ical sen­sors for a variety of contaminants.