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Divaqua brings cutting-edge technology from lab to industry

Divaqua Technologies (“Divaqua”) is an MIT startup integrating polymeric materials to improve wastewater treatment processes with a higher performing, safer, and more cost-effective solution.

A member of the 2017 Delta V cohort, Divaqua is dedicated to commercializing cutting-edge MIT polymeric material research by launching pilot programs with industrial partners in the wastewater treatment sector. Divaqua focuses on delivering the “last mile” in toxic chemical removal and breaks from tradition in this space by putting the customer first.

I sat down with the Divaqua Founder, Wen Jie Ong, and discussed his take on using an innovative technology to transform a traditional industry, while creating broad environmental and social impact.

Globally, 80% of wastewater generated from human activities is not treated before being released directly into the global water system. Untreated water can contain high-levels of toxic contaminant that is detrimental to human health and the environment. A recent example is the Flint water crisis, where 100,000 residents in Flint, Michigan were potentially exposed to high levels of lead in the drinking water, severely threatening public health and welfare.

According to the Frost & Sullivan 2016 Global Water Outlook, the industrial water and wastewater technology market is $26.8 billion and expected to grow at 5.8% per annum, while the municipal water and wastewater technology market is over $50 billion and has a growth rate of 4.2%. With increasingly tightened regulations, demand for wastewater treatment could potentially grow even faster.

Divaqua targets this demand with a high-performing, lost-cost solution for toxic chemical removal. The company is focused on integrating MIT-developed polymeric materials to support innovation in industrial and municipal wastewater treatment processes.

Divaqua was founded by MIT chemistry PhD Wen Jie Ong. Wen Jie was born and raised in Singapore, a small city state constrained by natural resources, especially water. “Water has a very special place in my heart,” said Wen Jie, when asked how he channeled a personal interest into founding Divaqua, “but it’s really the combination of passion, science and business that came toghether through various MIT resources fostering entrepreneurship.”

“When my PhD advisor received a research grant following the Flint crisis to develop a new polymer technology for heavy metals removal, I know it was the right time to pursue my passion.” – Wen Jie Ong, Divaqua Founder

Delivering the “Last Mile” in Wastewater Treatment

“Water treatment has two parts, chemistry and engineering. [In] the past 30 years, there has been a lot improvement in engineering, [such as] control and management, but not [in] chemistry,” Wen Jie expressed.

Chemical precipitation is the most common method for removing dissolved toxic metals from wastewater solution. To convert the dissolved metals into solid particle form, a precipitation reagent is added to the mixture. A chemical reaction, triggered by the reagent, causes the dissolved metals to form solid particles. Filtration can then be used to remove the particles from the mixture. The technology is relatively mature and easy to execute.

However, precipitation processes generally suffer from diminishing returns when repeated, as the concentration of the metals decrease. Similar to last mile delivery in logistics, removing the last trace of mercury is especially difficult and costly.

“Much of modern water treatment still relies on 100 year-old precipitant technology.” – Water Treatment Company Executive to Divaqua (anonymous due to confidentiality)

Divaqua’s polymer has high affinity for heavy metals, such as mercury and lead. Testing result from the Divaqua solution – 99.8% heavy metal contaminant removal rate – is particularly impressive in low-concentration environments, where traditional precipitation has weak results and disproportionately high cost. Delivering the “last mile” in wastewater treatment is the key.

Illustration of Divaqua’s patent-pending polymer technology

Listen to Customers from the Very Beginning

According to Wen Jie, the biggest obstacle in commercializing new water treatment technologies is persuading the major service providers to adopt a new technology. It is a traditional industry running on cost efficiency and is very slow to introduce new products. “The majors are risk-adverse and slow-moving. Improvements are driven by compliance, not internal [drivers],” Wen Jie commented.

Putting customers first is an important principle in design thinking. Identifying and eliminating customer pain points could drive product innovation and improve customer experience. It is commonly used in developing consumer products, software and applications, but yet to be widely recognized by engineers and entrepreneurs in the industrial technology world.

“We had our customers in mind from the very beginning. The last thing I want is another water technology that is too expensive or difficult to commercialize.” – Wen Jie Ong, Divaqua Founder

During the Delta V program, Wen Jie spent a significant amount of time trying to understand how decisions are made by these major water treatment providers. According to their findings, cost efficiency and compliance are on top of everyone’s list.

Having the customers’ needs in mind, Divaqua targets to integrate the polymer technology seamlessly into existing wastewater treatment systems. By eliminating (or at least significantly reducing) the upfront cost required to adjust current infrastructure, Wen Jie has avoided the first roadblock when starting conversations with industrial partners regarding potential pilot programs. “They are just looking for a plug-and-play [product],” Wen Jie elaborated.

Wen Jie Ong, Divaqua Founder, working on the polymer technology in MIT lab

Investments in the Water filtration and treatment Technology Space

In the water filtration and treatment technology space, innovations in drinking water purification and consumer-facing products have recently gained significant traction from incubators and investors. Puralytics, a startup that utilizes photo-chemical water purification process to provide clean water for human consumption, joined the Plug and Play Tech Center Fall 2017 cohort. Folia Water, a provider of paper water filters designed to reduce waterborne pathogens and improve drinking water quality, joined 500 Startups Batch 21 in August 2017.

Anfiro, developer of ultra-high permeability membranes created to provide water purification services for clean and affordable water, closed a $1.1M Seed Round with support from PRIME Coalition in November 2017. Bevi, a company that develops custom water filtration and beverage machines, raised $16.5M in Series B Round led by Trinity Ventures in July 2017.

On the other hand, there seems to be a lack of innovation and investment in large-scale, industrial wastewater treatment technologies, especially on the chemical side. The capital-intensive nature of developing industrial-scale technologies could be an important contributing factor. However, based on current discussions with potential industrial partners under NDAs, Wen Jie believes that pilot programs would likely be launched fully at the cost of the industrial partners, which could significantly reduce additional capital investment required from Divaqua.

Divaqua core team – Wen Jie Ong (MIT Chemistry PhD Candidate) and Jon Wofsy (HBS MBA Candidate)

Going Forward

Divaqua is currently planning pilot programs targeted at wastewater treatment for coal-fired power plants, given the huge need for mercury, selenium and arsenic removal. Wen Jie also plans to bring the technology to other water-intensive industries, such as mining and petrochemicals. These industrial applications would generate wide-ranging impact in mitigating environmental degradation and improving water security.

Beyond industrial applications, Divaqua also sees its polymer technology as a potential solution for municipal wastewater treatment. International opportunities are presented in developing countries, such as China, where the local governments struggle to remove heavy metals from city water sources that were already contaminated from industrial wastewater discharge.

Divaqua is currently seeking grants and seed-stage funding to support continuing R&D efforts and careful team expansion.

#industrialtechnology #polymericmaterial #sustainability #water

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