Ecolab, a Bill Gates-backed specialty-chemicals firm, has long focused on the industrial laundry and hygiene market, but it has expanded into water and wastewater treatment, particularly for natural gas operations. "We are the nerds in the businesses nerds don't usually bother with," says Ecolab chief Douglas Baker. The company also is looking ahead to when water may be less plentiful and more expensive by researching antimicrobials that require less water.

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