Erik Driessen of Acquaint
  • Water
  • Internationalizing

Acquaint targets solid international growth

After its founding in 2014, its mission was immediately crystal clear. Acquaint wanted to ensure reliable water supplies worldwide. Now, 10 years later, the water supply inspection company has already made significant strides. "The focus will initially be primarily on the United States.

Erik Driessen knew no hesitation when he was approached about two years ago to become CEO of Acquaint. The Leeuwarden-based company, which develops smart tools for the internal inspection of pipeline networks for drinking and wastewater, had just passed the startup phase and wanted to professionalize and grow internationally. Founders Rudy Dijkstra and Siemen van der Heide took a step back and saw in Erik, with almost 20 years of experience in international environmental and water technology, the right man to lead the expansion and internationalization of Acquaint.

'Before I start anything, I have to believe 100% in the product and the added value in the market,' Erik says. 'A company must be demonstrably distinctive. For me, in the Netherlands, Acquaint was the only company in water technology that met those requirements. Indeed, I have seen many innovative companies in the sector, but Acquaint's technology stands out from the rest. Moreover, the company has a young and very talented team that I get to support together with fellow board member and CFO Christine van der Valk.'

New problem

Indeed, the added value is obvious. Especially now that we are increasingly having to deal with aging water pipes worldwide. Many of the networks date from after World War II and after about 70 to 80 years are less resistant to stress. 'The first 50 years you might not worry about that so much,' Erik states. 'For that reason, it is sometimes seen as a new problem. But it is a problem of unprecedented scale. Because if you wait too long to replace them, damages and leaks, in addition to causing inconvenience, make for very expensive repairs. In the Netherlands alone, we have billions of euros worth of replacement value lying under the ground. That is why Acquaint offers tools to predict pipeline failure and to plan management and maintenance better and smarter.'

It immediately underscores the company's mission: to ensure reliable water supplies worldwide. Acquaint does this by developing inspection tools that give pipe owners and managers of underground water pipes a good insight into the condition of their pipes. In the lifespan and possible risks, for example.

Ultrasonic sensors

The tools are equipped with ultrasonic sensors that send high-frequency sound waves to the inside of the pipe wall. The waves find their way through the entire wall, then reflect back to sensors at the front and back of the pipe. 'Those two echoes give reliable insights into how the pipe is doing over its entire length,' Erik explains. 'A tool we put in at one end and take out again, often after many kilometers, at the other end of the pipeline. Usually an inspection yields about 80 gigabytes of data. They tell us something about the thickness and density, about any weak spots or other abnormalities, and about the condition of the joints used to push the pipes together. Often crucial information that pipeline owners and managers did not have access to before.'

An employee of Acquaint on location

Oil and gas industry

Acquaint, which works closely with water institute Wetsus and the Water Alliance, was founded in 2014 by Rudy Dijkstra and Siemen van der Heide. Both came from the oil and gas industry where internal inspection of pipes was already commonplace. However, despite the large market demand, it proved impossible to adopt the inspection technique one-to-one and introduce it to the water sector. The first years therefore consisted mainly of research and developing a pilot version with a number of drinking water companies and water boards. With success, because in the period thereafter Acquaint was regularly called in for commercial projects. Since then, a sustained growth spurt has begun.

International growth model

So time to spread its wings further and make an impact globally. When Erik took office as CEO in September 2022, the company was already active on a small scale, mainly with pilot projects, in the United States, the Middle East, New Zealand, Belgium and England. Acquaint was about to really take off internationally. Now, a year and a half later, a raw water pipeline in Texas and a wastewater pipeline in Oklahoma, among others, have already been inspected, as well as several wastewater pipelines in Qatar.

But what exactly is the strategy? In other words, what does Acquaint's international growth model look like? 'We want to find a partner in several countries who will offer and apply our technology there,' Erik explains. 'The data retrieved will then be sent to Leeuwarden so that we can create the reports for clients. We remain closely connected to all projects worldwide, but let partners do the sales and physical implementation. They know the market and are familiar with local laws and regulations. In our view, it is the best model to grow faster internationally.'

Valuable session

After more and more new foreign requests came in, contact was made with Wessel de Vries, theme specialist in International Entrepreneurship at both YnBusiness and GroBusiness. Wessel, with a rich history as an export manager, had known Acquaint for some time and knew about the company's international ambitions. A session was immediately scheduled to spend a day with the MT sparring about business development and the opportunities and challenges in international business. Wessel decided to also invite Bram Kruijt for this purpose. He was convinced that the Projects Manager at Oranjewoud Export Academy, a platform that helps Frisian companies take their exports to the next level, could be of great value to Acquaint.

'It was a valuable session in which relevant questions were critically examined,' Erik reflects. In which countries are you already active and why? What do you consider the criteria that determine whether or not a country has potential? And once you know that, how do you go about it? We noticed that until then we often made our decisions based on gut feeling. Based on his extensive international experience, Wessel always asked the right questions and held up a mirror to us. Together with Bram, he helped us to approach issues more methodically.

Similar markets

For this year, Acquaint is aiming for solid growth abroad. Thus, at least a quarter of sales must come from across the border. In the period thereafter, that should be the majority of sales. 'We are focusing on similar markets to the Netherlands,' Erik says. 'We provide high-tech services and that is obviously not cheap. The focus will initially be mainly on the United States. Awareness of aging pipelines is high there and so the central government is putting a lot of pressure on good and timely infrastructure maintenance. At the same time, we remain unrelentingly committed to innovation. We not only want to grow, but also to do better what we do well.'