Daring to Dream of a Better World

Dr. Andrew Benedek, founder and former chairman and CEO of Zenon Environmental, named winner of inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize to be awarded during Singapore International Water Week in June.

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By Carlos David Mogollón, Managing Editor

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Dr. Andrew Benedek, founder and former chairman and CEO of Zenon Environmental, named winner of inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize to be awarded during Singapore International Water Week in June.

Among water industry honorees this summer will be a man who, as a child, escaped from Hungary after the 1956 Soviet crackdown by walking across the border with his uncle into Austria and leaving his mother behind. He moved to Canada to live with an aunt the next year and later earned a bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal and a doctorate from the University of Washington in Seattle, both in chemical engineering. Afterward, he returned to Canada to teach for 10 years at McMaster University in Pendleton, Ontario, where he rose to head of the water research group before starting his own company, Zenon Environmental, in 1980. After 26 years, he sold the ultrafiltration (UF) module and membrane bioreactor (MBR) specialist to GE Water & Process Technologies two years ago for US$656 million.

Dr. Andrew Benedek was singled out in mid-March to receive the first Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, to be presented between 23 and 27 June at the inaugural Singapore International Water Week. The honor, which includes a gold medallion, certificate and S$300,000 [US$215,000] cash award, is sponsored by the Singapore Millennium Foundation, a philanthropic body supported by Temasek Holdings that has pledged S$1.5 million over five years to the prize, named for Singapore’s founding father.

Benedek was chosen from 39 nominees. Among the three notable professors nominating him was Prof. Anthony Gordon Fane, UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science & Technology, University of New South Wales, who said: “Dr. Benedek is held in high esteem by the global water industry community for his pioneering work in low-pressure membranes. For this outstanding contribution, he deserves to be the recipient of the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.” His other nominators were Dr. Ong Choon Nam, National University and Singapore water reuse study chairman, and Prof. Laszlo Somlyody, University of Budapest and an International Water Association past president.

Compared with conventional water purification technologies, these membranes use less energy, lower operating costs and greater ease of operation. The technology was instrumental in Singapore’s development of reclaimed water, branded NEWater. It lowers the cost of seawater desalination when used as pretreatment for SWRO plants. Benedek is proud of the pioneering work his company has done in making membranes more economically feasible as a clean water solution for not just municipal and industrial uses, but sees brighter promise for them for provision of potable water in poor countries due to low-maintenance requirements. He noted GE Water has projects under way with villages in China, Pakistan and other locales employing Zenon’s ZeeWeed UF technology to treat water for small communities affordably.

At age 64, Benedek seems far from retirement. Now living in San Diego, California, USA, he’s a research associate at UC-San Diego studying oceanography and the effects of global warming. He’s also venturing into the alternate energy field with UTS Biogas near Munich, Germany, a company that focuses on methane recovery from wastewater as a renewable energy resource. Along with nearly 100,000 people, he plans on attending the IFAT environmental trade show in Munich in May to promote the effort.

In the end, his message to WWI readers and young people looking for a better life is to dare to dream: “I think the most important story about me and that I hope will be of benefit to your younger readers is that, if you dream and you truly believe that dream, it will happen. And I hope that your readers dream big and continue to improve the world. That’s what life is about.”

Below are some highlights from WWI"s conversation with Benedek in April but, for the full interview in Q&A format, click here:

WWI: When Zenon was sold two years ago to GE Water, how much had it grown?

Benedek: It had gone from nothing and one employee to 1,500 employees and from a company that was doing something that everybody thought was kind of crazy to the technology becoming the revolutionary force in the field after 100 years of improvement but very little evolution. It was heading toward the $300 million mark... Business in a typical year was close to 60% U.S.- based... due to the wonderful openness in America in accepting new technologies. You do have to work at it at first, but once you develop the right technology and coupled to that the right support – things just take off, especially here in California. Just prior to that I was living in Hungary, synchronizing the European business because it was getting us about 20-25% of our volume, but it could’ve given us a lot more and I wanted to get that base set up properly. And, in fact, from California, I was looking at the other 10-15% that we had in Asia. I wanted to strengthen that too, because I knew it was going to grow dramatically.

WWI: I would imagine it’s a difficult decision to sell because it’s like giving up a child.

Benedek: It’s more than giving up a child. It’s giving up yourself because, when you’re being 26 years with a company and you’re the leader of that company from the beginning, you become the company. You’re the symbol of the company. You spend much more time with the company than you do with anything else, including your children unfortunately... At the same time, you see both sides of the equation. You see that it’s one of the most respected companies in the world. They may well be a good parent for this technology.

WWI: What are your thoughts on winning this award?

Benedek: I think it’s truly a great honor, the kind that comes on top of having a really fortunate privilege to be a leader in this field. I think we’ve revolutionized the way water is treated everywhere and we’ll continue to do so. I feel I’ve been very lucky to have done this. And it’s very nice to get not a recognition for my company but recognition for me personally.

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