ZwitterCo helps farms and factories recycle wastewater

The water in the jar on the left is waste water before being put through the ZwitterCo filter membrane. The jar on the right is clean water, ready for reuse. The jar in the middle is the waste concentrate that has been pulled out of the water using the filtration system and can be used to make other products, such as livestock manure, that can be sold.

Image courtesy ZwitterCo

Wastewater reprocessing startup ZwitterCo has raised $33 million to scale its chemically mineralized membrane water filtration technology to help industrial companies and large farms recycle wastewater from their systems, allowing them to use less fresh water.

“The goal for us is to maximize reuse, so that you can reduce the amount of fresh water consumption,” Alex Rappaport, CEO and co-founder of CNBC, said in a video interview. “We will enable the future of abundant water.”

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This is important now because climate change is making fresh water an increasingly scarce commodity. Currently, 37% of the United States and 44% of the lower 48 states are experiencing drought, according to the Integrated National Drought Information System.

“The world is getting hotter and, in many places, drier. Water demand is outstripping supply in much of the United States, including the Colorado River Basin, which is at a 1,000-year low,” Jason Bunten, partner at DCVC, Inc. The venture capital that is leading this funding round, in a post about its investments.

“But Americans also waste a lot of water: Every day, industrial facilities in the United States discharge 255 billion gallons of sewage into public waterways,” said Pontin, who is also the CEO of ZwitterCo. “Most of that is processed through chemical, physical or biological means, but it’s still not pure enough for industrial reuse. If it was, utilities wouldn’t drain it.”

This is the problem that ZwitterCo solves with its membrane technology made from so-called “zwitterionic copolymers” – hence the company’s name – which was first developed by professor of chemical engineering Ayse Asatekin at Tufts University.

What is a zwitterionic membrane?

Decades of previous efforts to develop water purification technology for industrial use cases have been hampered by a problem called “membrane contamination,” which means filter pores become clogged so frequently that it takes too much time to clean them.

This is especially true of the type of materials that must be taken out of wastewater from an industrial plant or a large agricultural farm, such as fats, oils and greases.

ZwitterCo’s technology, zwitterions, is so good at absorbing water that it actually removes moisture from the air, Rappaport told CNBC.

The filter membrane looks like a sponge when you zoom in too close, and the width of those sponges or the height of the pores is the hardest part to keep it clean. But ZwitterCo’s membrane pores act as a kind of water void, drawing water molecules from the oils.

“Because the membrane is very hydrophilic from these zwitterions, you are able to operate for years in environments where another membrane would be damaged within hours,” Rappaport told CNBC. This is “because you are constantly able to re-wet, re-wet the surface and reconfigure it back to the starting performance.”

ZwitterCo water filter membranes.

Image courtesy ZwitterCo

What’s really important for winning customers is that the system can save customers money in addition to water, according to Rappaport. The exact amount of money and water depends on the farm or industrial facility.

“In the absence of effective tools to extract all these contaminants from the water, you are kind of stuck.” Other options include pulling it away, getting rid of it, or coordinating with regulators to spread some of the waste on the ground, Rappaport told CNBC. ZwitterCo technology reduces these costs.

For Solugen, a Houston-based company that makes chemicals and materials using enzymes, the ZwitterCo water filtration system has allowed about 10 million gallons of water to be recycled last year, according to an estimate from co-founder and CTO Sean Hunt.

“Our first manufacturing facility, Bioforge 1, is a vacuum-free facility in that we have no emissions from air or wastewater. ZwitterCo membranes are a key technology in our toolbox,” Hunt told CNBC. “Our treated water recycling loop is north of 20 gpm, and it goes through several membrane, recovery and reuse steps to conserve the process water and recycle it to the front end of Bioforge 1.”

ZwitterCo membrane slide in bottom left middle of Solugen Chemical Factory.

Photo courtesy Sologen

In many cases, such as in manure digestion processing, meat and poultry processing, dairy wastewater, and bioprocess applications, materials filtered using ZwitterCo membranes can be resold as fertilizer or feedstock, creating a new revenue stream.

“So in the meat and poultry industry, the fats and oils that we extract can be sold into pet food. And in the bioprocessing industry, the cellular material that we can take out can be sold as organic feedstock to help be the protein food for livestock. In the compost industry, the organic matter can be that is taken out as compost,” Rappaport told CNBC. “So the goal is to create value on both sides of the membrane.”

ZwitterCo launched in 2018 and has drawn on grants for its first year and a half, including $1.25 million from the Department of Energy. Rappaport and his partners, Christopher Drover and Chris Roy, spent the early years primarily figuring out how to take research from the Asatekin lab and turn it into a product that can be manufactured and marketed on a large scale.

Alex Rappaport, CEO and Co-founder of ZwitterCo

Image courtesy ZwitterCo

The $33 million ZwitterCo announced Thursday that it will raise total funding to $44 million and allow ZwitterCo to complete construction of a 30,000-square-foot facility in Woburn, Massachusetts. There are currently 50 full-time employees, and while the company is profitable from 16 clients, it is not yet profitable.

This funding will also partially go towards hiring more people to work with industrial clients to tailor the ZwitterCo installation to the client’s needs. Rappaport told CNBC that the cost of installing a ZwitterCo water purification system varies widely by customer, but can range from five to seven figures. This is in line with infrastructure improvements that factories and farms are making regularly, he said.

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