Transforming the world’s water usage

Transforming the world’s water usage

The average person in the developed world uses three times as much water as is sustainable. Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, who has created a circular shower system that recirculates water as you wash, believes that innovative design – not behaviour change – is the best way to curb consumption.

Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, an industrial designer, first began to think about the way we use water while working for NASA at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. Focusing on manned missions, Mahjdoubi was among a team investigating how to maintain “an earthly living standard on Mars”. Efficiency, as you might expect for a location where water is scarce, was critical, but Mahdjoubi soon realised how little innovation there was regarding water use on his home planet. In 2012 Mahdjoubi founded a company, Orbital Systems, to channel his research into finding a solution to everyday water wastage.

The average person in the developed world uses about 200 litres of water a day. This needs to be reduced by at least a third to be sustainable. The Orbital shower – described as the world’s first circular shower system – recirculates water as it drains, using sensors to analyse if the water is clean enough to be reused. The water is then purified by a UV light and the temperature is corrected before it returns to use. By recirculating hot water, energy that would be used to heat it is saved. It means that unlike with a traditional system, a longer shower actually results in a greater amount of water being saved. As Mahdjoubi points out, changing behaviour is a challenge – particularly in relation to personal hygiene. “That’s one reason low-flow showerheads have never been popular,” he says. “Because it comes at the expense of comfort or user experience.” For a solution to be widely adopted enough to have a real-world effect, it needed to not feel compromising to the user. Solving this technical challenge has been a decade-long process. 

Today, Orbital is a company of about 100 based in Malmö, Sweden, and has just released its third-generation shower design – the first to be commercially available. It has sold 10,000 units to a client base that primarily includes hotels and property developers in the Nordics, and is gearing up to expand into global markets; last year it had a revenue north of $15 million. Orbital has grown over the past decade with the help of a cumulative $100 million in investment, secured across numerous funding rounds, which have supported the company as it has moved from research and development towards retail. 

Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, Founder and CEO of Orbital Systems
Image courtesy and copyright Orbital Systems

Mahdjoubi’s company represents a new model for the industry. When he first investigated the shower market, he found that the major players were still rooted in the brass-casting industry – some still had stakes in mining companies – and research was focused on creating new alloy mixes and materials. He realised there was a gap in the market. “The traditional shower brands weren’t really focused on water purification, thermo dynamics, electronics software, internet of things,” he says.

It also meant recruiting from beyond the existing sector. Mahdjoubi built his team from scratch by plucking talent from the electronics industry, those with experience in engineering white goods and medical equipment. Many of his engineers had worked on dialysis machines; there were similarities in the processes required to rapidly purify and recirculate blood. This was a truly multidisciplinary challenge, combining distilled dynamics, microbiology and chemistry. 

For the Orbital system to be a success it required incredibly high-spec results. “We are purifying water at a rate that is 100 times faster than what is traditionally done in the home,” he explains. “About 10 litres a minute. And it needs to be done fast enough to capture the heat. If you can recuperate that water in real time, fast enough to lose just a couple of degrees of energy, then you can not only save a lot of water but also the energy that can compensate for the cost of the technology.” 

A project of this ambition inevitably comes with “painful learnings”, admits Mahdjoubi. “As you solve one problem, you get another one.” For example, the second-generation design, which proved that the product could be manufactured, was liked by the engineers and the customers, but not by the people who actually install showers. “It turned out they hated it, because the installation process was too different. And you have not created a market for something unless it fits in the whole value chain. So, we changed the design, working closely with installers – and now it’s easy to install.”

Orbital System’s circular shower system recirculates the same water as you shower, reducing water, electricity and carbon emissions.
Image courtesy and copyright Orbital Systems

As the company invests in industrialisation and moves into the consumer space, it has begun to shift its emphasis from research and development to customer journey. It is easier to sell to corporate customers, but Mahdjoubi hopes it will become a domestic product: “We have to systematically lower the barriers to adopting it. Between 5 and 10 per cent of bathrooms in the developed world are being refurbished every year; but people need to actually know about the product, as well as consider it value for money.” Orbital Systems is still in the early phases of reaching supply chain maturity, a phase when the production costs will drop rapidly. But Mahdjoubi has a vision for it to transform the way the world uses water. “This is a product you can manufacture not only in the tens of thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands.”

Mehrdad Mahdjoubi

Founder and CEO of Orbital Systems

Completes a Master of Fine Arts in industrial design at Lund University


Begins working as Project leader for NASA at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston


Founds his own company, Orbital Systems, as CEO


Raises first round of investment from Niklas Zennström, founder of Skype


Wins a Good Design Award from the Chicago Athaneum


Named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and begins as a three-year tenure as guest lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business


Orbital Systems sees a revenue of more $15 million

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