Water is an enormous issue around the globe -- for drinking, farming and industry.
There is a looming water crisis facing everyone on Earth as populations rise, pollution increases and climate and weather patterns change. There is already a water crisis in many developing nations and in some not-so-developing regions, like Australia and California. The stats for "embedded" or "virtual" water are sobering -- for example, the production of 1 kilogram of beef requires the use of 15,500 liters of water.
And water is inextricably linked to energy -- California uses an extraordinary amount of power to move water around the state. In fact, a fifth of the electricity used in California is intertwined with water. So is 30 percent of the natural gas, according to the California Energy Commission. Most of that power is actually used to heat water so you can have hot showers and clean hospital equipment, but around five to six percent of all of California's energy gets consumed simply by moving water.
Microvi Biotech, led by CEO Fatemeh Shirazi, a fifteen-year industry veteran, believes it has a solution to one of our water problems -- pollution from nitrogenous compounds stemming from natural or agricultural sources. Almost any waste water has a nitrogenous element. “Nitrogenous compounds in drinking water continue to pose a serious health risk, yet traditional treatments are too expensive. They also create by-products that degrade the environment and are difficult to remove," said Shirazi. High levels of nitrogenous compounds in drinking water can cause a deficiency of oxygen in organ tissue and have been linked to a dangerous condition in infants called methemoglobinemia, also known as "blue baby syndrome."
The problem is global and the United States alone spends $4.3 billion a year to remove nitrogenous compounds and phosphorous from water.
One of the problems with traditional water treatment is that you end up with a secondary waste stream of concentrated pollutants. What happens to that toxic waste stream?
Microvi's process encloses microbes inside a semi-permeable membrane, using strains that can assimilate pollutants like chlorinated hydrocarbons, phenols, perchlorate, nitrogenous compounds and pharmaceuticals. Shirazi said, "Microvi tackles every pollutant in the water industry."
The startup claims that its technology yields water that meets drinking standards with no waste stream, in contrast to the sludge created by conventional wastewater processing.
According to the CEO, the system is easy to handle and operate, and once you set it up, it's almost maintenance-free. The firm is targeting waste waster in industrial and municipal markets, as well as surface water, ground water and water in the oil and gas industry.
"The technology is fundamentally different than anything on the market," claims the CEO. Microvi's bioreactors employ microorganisms that have the ability to utilize the pollutants as a food source. The billions of organisms in the reactor "have been trained," and the conditions in the reactor tuned so that there is no waste stream, according to Shirazi, who adds that "other folks have tried but have not been successful" in this endeavor. The organisms are not genetically modified, nor are they pathogenic, were they to escape the bioreactor. The CEO was not willing to identify the microbes doing the work.
Shirazi's claims aside, others are aiming at similar goals. Emefcy has created a biological fuel cell that cleans water and generates electricity.
Microvi is currently raising a B round. The company raised more than $1.25 million in initial funding, and the technology received about $1.8 million in government funding from the National Institute of Health.
On a related note, Michael Kanellos covered water purification here and I profiled a few Israeli water startups here. We covered Canadian water innovation here and even more water startups profiled: NanoH2O, APT, and water/IT play TaKaDu. An article on water and venture capital is here.
(N.B.: The "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over" quote is attributed to Mark Twain.)