GE knows big opportunities when it sees them. Its thirst for groundbreaking water-purification technologies lands it on our list for the second straight year. Last year's star acquisition was Ionics and its desalinization plants; this year, it's Zenon Membrane Solutions, the inventor of a hollow fiber membrane that filters water through thousands, or even millions, of thin tubes, stripping out pollutants, impurities, and disease agents. These so-called ZeeWeed filters are powerful enough to transform Singapore's raw sewage into clean water and compact enough that you can install one at home.
That could come in handy in the developing world, where more than a billion people still live without reliably clean drinking water. "We've probably cut the real cost of producing water by 60% in the last 10 years," says GE Water & Process Technologies CEO Jeff Garwood. "And we believe we can cut it another 25% over the next two." Zenon's membranes are at the heart of what will be the world's largest drinking-water plant, outside Toronto, which will produce nearly 100 million gallons daily.
As we noted last year, GE Water is the company's fastest-growing divison, with sales of $2 billion in 2005 and aiming at $10 billion by 2016. "Some of the fastest-growing markets are in China and the Middle East, obviously, but what's frightening is that we could pick New Mexico and make it a growth market if we wanted to," Garwood says. "Water is that scarce."