"Applied science opens up new horizons"
He conducted his research in the field in Nepal and South Africa and was convinced of the impact it could have on society. In addition to his scientific work at Eawag, Bastien Etter also worked as a consultant before founding a start-up. Vuna's business model: excrement. Instead of getting rid of it, the devices of the 37-year-old scientist from Biel treat and refine what comes out of our guts.
By the way, why did you become interested in the treatment of excrement?
In Switzerland we are strong in recycling glass, plastic or aluminum, but almost nothing is done with wastewater. People flush and forget about it. So instead of being recycled, our excrement pollutes our environment. At Eawag, we have developed sanitation systems that separate urine and faeces. This allows them to be processed into fertiliser and compost. Other systems use plants to filter low-impact wastewater, which is particularly useful in remote areas for more independent living.
How did your research lead to the creation of a start-up?
Our team received many enquiries about our systems, especially from Switzerland and neighbouring countries. The Swiss Alpine Club, for example, had contacted us to evaluate autonomous toilets for their huts at altitude. Housing projects in cities are interested in treating grey water, i.e. water that is low in pollutants, in order to reuse it in a closed cycle or to green it. This last point is particularly interesting in relation to global warming, as more green spaces are needed to counteract the heat islands that are developing in urban areas.
How did you take this step?
It was a long process. For two years, I continued my research work at Eawag while developing advisory services. In 2016, I founded Vuna with partners. It is a logical development: I always wanted my research to be applied in practice and not limited to academia.
Was your interest in applied science compatible with the cutting-edge research environment?
I was fortunate to be in a position where the pressure to publish research papers was not too great. In fact, I always pushed my colleagues to go out more into the field. I am aware that this was not always appreciated! Some people prefer to stay in the lab and publish. For me, on the other hand, it is absolutely essential to confront my scientific research with the real world.
I get a lot of inspiration from it. When you work with professionals from the real world – whether architects, construction workers or gardeners – you learn a lot. Their knowledge doesn't come from books, but from experiences and observations they make. This has helped me with my research, especially with identifying new and very concrete problems and developing creative and flexible approaches to solving them. Outside the lab, you discover the unexpected. We have to improvise and make do with the resources we have, and this forces us to think of creative solutions.
No nostalgia for the research community?
I often meet my former colleagues as well as scientists who come to see what we are doing, because Vuna's offices are in the start-up incubator Glatec in Dübendorf, very close to Eawag and Empa. The most creative discussions don't take place in meetings, but over coffee or lunch. That's what I miss most about the coronavirus epidemic.
How do you create a framework that supports innovation?
Researchers need to be encouraged to go out into the field and interact with professionals from all areas. We try to contribute to this: every year we take an Eawag team to a mountain hut equipped with an innovative sanitation system.
Does Eawag promote applied research?
Not enough in my opinion. I see a strong orientation towards fundamental research. Even though it is possible to find substantial funding, I think it is a pity, because applied science opens up new horizons. So, I hope it will always have its place alongside academic research.