In a recent Water Journal (client registration required), Lux classified over 250 startups in the water industry on the basis of their technology focus. We concluded that nearly 20% of these companies exclusively focus on membrane based technologies. This week we take a closer look at these membrane companies by placing them on the Lux Innovation Grid.
While there are a number of promising companies, a particularly interesting cluster falls along the border between the “Long-shot” and “High-potential” quadrants. Overall, these companies offer competitive membrane technologies but are lacking a strategy to achieve significant penetration in the membrane market. For instance, MetalMembranes (client registration required) and i3 membrane (client registration required) offer new membrane manufacturing techniques to improve flux and performance of metal-based membranes. Both these companies have found unconventional applications using their membranes for medical and pharmaceutical diagnostics, which require strong “anti-leakage” material to prepare microbiological and liquid chromatography (HPLC) samples. While these companies are still at an early stage, they lack a roll-to-roll manufacturing process, which limits their applicability to niche markets.
A few companies within this cluster focus on improving traditional desalination membranes. Massachusetts based Anfiro uses block co-polymers that align cylindrically to form “self-assembling” high-flux reverse osmosis (RO) membranes. Its membranes are robust to chlorine exposure, an Achilles heel of traditional RO membranes. Using Anfiro’s membranes, desalination plants could potentially reduce the frequency of membrane replacement, decrease disinfection costs, and lower plant down-time. The company is still developing a lab stage prototype but is confident that its membranes are strong enough to challenge the incumbent technology on both price as well as performance at scale. Oasys Water founder Rob McGinnis established Nagare Membranes in 2013, and in December 2014, it raised $10.5 million in series A fundingto commercialize its carbon nanotube (CNT) based membrane technology. While its membranes offer notable benefits including resistance to chemical cleaning, high salt rejection rates, and potential for roll-to-roll manufacturing, which is a unique step forward in CNT membrane production. The company faces challenges in terms of membrane costs and strategy as it is targeting low value added markets such as seawater desalination and small-scale point-of-use. Both these challenges can be tackled through partnerships that could drive Nagare’s technology into new markets.
Companies in the “Dominant” quadrant offer state-of-the-art membranes in the industry. For instance, Vontron Technology (client registration required) is a leading Chinese manufacturer of polymer based RO and nanofiltration (NF) membranes. Its membranes offer a salt rejection of up to 99.7% and are suitable for low pressure treatment for feed streams, such as brackish groundwater and surface water sources, as well as seawater desalination. The company is one of the few membrane manufacturers that can ship its membranes dry, which helps reduce membrane shipment and storage costs, and increases membrane shelf life. Like Vontron, China-based Scinor Membrane Technology (client registration required) provides polymer membranes for UF and RO, but differentiates itself in the Chinese market by building membrane bioreactors (MBRs) and providing engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) services through its subsidiary Scinor Water. Both of these Chinese companies are established in their domestic market and have expanded to Europe and parts of Asia such as Singapore through subsidiaries and forward channel partners.
Aquaporin’s (client registration required) disruptive biomimetic membrane technology rapidly and selectively allows water molecules to pass through the membrane rejecting all other species. The company shows up in the “dominant” quadrant due to recent investment activity (client registration required). Chinese and Danish firms have backed the company through significant working capital to scale up its membrane manufacturing. The company initially focused on selling its membranes for lab-scale forward osmosis applications, but through its Chinese investors, Aquaporin now hopes to enter China’s point-of-use market with a new flat sheet RO membrane. Commercializing this technology has the potential to revolutionize the membrane separation space as Aquaporin’s membranes are widely applicable to different membrane separations processes (client registration required).
High-potential companies such as Cerahelix and G2O water, both at early stages, provide functionalized membranes that improve the performance of traditional membranes. Cerahelix (client registration required) is currently raising $5 million in funding to build its first large-scale system to house a robust ceramic membrane templated with aligned DNA which reduces the pore size down to one nanometer (nm). While ceramics are more expensive than most polymer membranes, the company is targeting difficult-to-treat applications, such as frac water treatment, fine chemical separations, and acid mine drainage, where it will command a higher price point.
Advanced materials like graphene can provide significant improvements in flux and fouling resistance than traditional membrane materials. However, graphene membranes have failed to enter the membrane market largely due to the high cost of manufacturing, sourcing, and the fragile nature of single atom-thick sheets that break under high pressure. G2O Water (client registration required) has found a different method to use graphene in membranes. The company applies a 10 nm ultra-thin layer of graphene oxide flakes on top of conventional polymer and ceramic membranes to improve flux. While its membranes exhibit oleophobic properties and are suitable for oil water separations in the onshore and offshore industry, G2O Water’s recent partnerships (client registration required) in the U.K will see the company roll-out its first system to remediate wastewaters from abandoned nuclear waste sites.
Water treatment using membranes are becoming increasingly common, and advances in membrane technologies offer tunable solutions for a range of applications. Clients with capabilities in the membranes space or seeking partnerships in advanced membrane technologies should engage companies in the “Dominant” and “High-potential” quadrants. Clients should also consider partnering with companies currently trapped in the cluster between “High-potential” and “Long-shot” quadrants.