Winner Spotlight: Aquanos Revolutionizes Wastewater With Algae
The wastewater treatment market is not sustainable — it’s outdated process is both pricey and inefficient. That’s why Aquanos has devised a new way of using algae to change that entirely. The Israeli startup has been working on this technology, which saves energy on wastewater treatment, for years and is now ready to go to market.
The company won the energy category at the Tel Aviv Challenge Cup earlier this month and will go on to the Challenge Festival in the spring. CEO Udi Leshem, who pitched during the competition, explained the science behind what Aquanos is doing and what it’s been like for his diverse team to work out of Tel Aviv.
Describe the problem that you’re going after with Aquanos.
I don’t need to explain why wastewater is a big problem. Everyone needs it but when you look at wastewater treatment the common technology that we talk about is biological. That means we use microorganisms to grade the organic materials that are present in the water. Then we separate the microorganisms from the wastewater.
This process has been around for 100 years, and it does a good job in cleaning the wastewater. The problem is this process isn’t sustainable from an economic point of view and from an environmental point of view. And the reason it’s not sustainable is because we use a lot of energy, and most of this energy is going to provide energy for the microorganisms. Microorganisms, like us, need oxygen and in order to provide the oxygen, we push a lot of air into the water. … This is a very inefficient process.
We’re talking about 4 to 5 percent efficiency, which means a very large amount of air to supply the oxygen. The fact that we need a lot of energy is expensive in developed countries and also prohibited in developing countries. First of all it’s expensive there, and it’s not available in the quality that you need. When I say quality of energy I mean 24-hour supply. For instance, when you go to India every place will have a backup generator because they don’t have 24/7 electricity.
Then how does your solution fit in?
We thought about how we could do it better, and we came up with the usage of algae. Algae is an aquatic plant. Like any other plant, it uses photosynthesis and by doing so it does two things: it supplies the oxygen the microorganisms need and the second thing is it takes the nutrients out of the water. And then you can utilize the algae as a product itself, so instead of destroying the nutrients, we actually recycle the nutrients .
When we do this, we completely change the economics of wastewater treatment. From a process that consumes a lot of energy and is expensive to build and operate it’s becoming a process that produces energy and generates revenue. The end result, we believe, is making wastewater treatment profitable for places who have it and accessible for places that don’t right now.
Is anybody else using algae in this way?
The algae and microorganisms have a symbiotic relationship, Algae are using carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce oxygen, and microorganisms are taking oxygen to convert it to carbon dioxide. People have thought about using this symbiotic relationship way before us but the problem and what people have done before is put algae and microorganisms in ponds. When you add too much microorganisms then the microorganisms will grow because they have food. Sunlight cannot penetrate and algae cannot work. So in order to overcome this, you have to work in low density of microorganisms … What we developed is, instead of putting the microorganisms and algae into the same pond, we separate them. Then the water is relatively clean and algae are using the nutrients. My algae is also less polluted.
How long did it take to go from idea to a full-fledged solution, which you have now?
We operated small-scale pilots for 18 months and got very, very good results. Then we got an initial seed investment. Altogether it was about three years of R&D to the get to the point we are.
Where will your first projects and usage of this algae process take place?
One (project we’ve) secured is in Israel and another that we secured is in the U.S. In the U.S. it will be a brand new plant that we’re building in Massachusetts, and we’ll start working on in Q1 of next year.
Was there an a-ha moment when this approach came to you?
It’s an idea that’s evolved. We started with the basics, had a lot of discussions talking about how current wastewater treatment isn’t sustainable and efficient and how can we make it better. And we looked into how can we separate the algae from the microorganisms. It wasn’t an “a-ha” moment exactly. We first identified what the problem or the challenge was that we wanted to fix and then tried, piece by piece, to break it down.
What’s your background and the backgrounds of your founding team?
I’m an environmental engineer. I did my undergraduate in Israel, and I did my Masters in environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. When I moved back to Israel I worked for Siemens Water Technologies and then joined a more mature startup that’s not a startup anymore called Aqwise. So I started in engineering and shifted a little bit more toward sales and into business development.
My partner was more on the technical side and I was on the business side, and we have another process engineer. And we have another person more on the algae side and one on the technical side. Altogether it’s a group of five people; all are very experienced in their fields and very complementary. Each one has his specialty and brings his own point of view.
You’re based just south of Tel Aviv. What’s that been like as a place to locate your startup?
The Tel Aviv area for startups is well-known and there are a lot of advantages, starting with government support. There are also a lot of organizations who will support you with marketing and communications so that’s a help. Israel is a great place because the country is very small and also open to innovation. People are willing to try and accept new idea. The physical climate is very favorable for what we’re doing.
How did you find the experience of competing in Challenge Cup?
First of all, it was a lot of fun, hearing what other people are doing, especially other fields that you’re not exposed to at all to. Usually you know your peers but you don’t get to hear a lot about, say, education startups. So to see other people and hear how they, think, what they do was great.
Between now and May, when the Challenge Festival takes place, what are the milestones you hope to hit?
On the technical side we still think we think we can improve the product and make it more efficient. We expect that we can take it up to 20 percent more efficiency. On the commercial side we’ll hopefully break ground for the first two projects. In Israel we have everything in place and in the United States we’re trying to figure out everything with permitting.