Membrane filters for the world’s toughest wastewaters
Analysis of 30 years of global insurance claims tells us that over the next ten years, 70% of the impacts of climate change will be felt through the water cycle. In the future, water scarcity will be the shark’s teeth of climate change. Droughts, floods, stormwater surges, waterborne pathogens, and pollutants are all clear-and-present concerns that will make water scarcity worse by the year without new, innovative, decentralized, and adaptive solutions.
The world’s population in 1924 was roughly 2 billion people. We will surpass 8 billion people in 2024, just 100 years later. As a consequence of this explosive population growth, much of our conventional water resources — lakes, river, reservoirs and aquifers — have passed the point where they can be sustainably restored by our natural water cycles. The era of cheap, abundant water is over, and absent proactive management, dystopian outcomes — severe economic downturn, food shortages, zero-day-water in megacities, and regional conflicts — loom ever more probable.
While we certainly need to conserve water and use it more efficiently, especially in agriculture, we must also aggressively harness unconventional water resources, such as seawater desalination, industrial and municipal water reuse, atmospheric water generation, as well as waters which are simply too polluted to economically treat, to augment our water supplies. As deep tech investors, we believe in the power of innovation to tackle our global challenges, and it is hard to see an industry more in need of innovation than water. Our firm, along with the principle-driven investors who support us, is committed to finding, funding, and growing breakthrough water technology companies that can help solve our urgent global water challenges while delivering superior investment returns.
DCVC is therefore delighted to mark the launch of the ZwitterCo Innovation Center in Woburn, just north of Boston, MA. Founded in 2018, ZwitterCo, which DCVC has backed from its beginnings, is a membrane filtration company whose core technology originated in the research laboratories of Tufts University and was incubated at Greentown Labs, both part of the strong water and clean energy ecosystem curated in Massachusetts over the past two decades.
Membranes are the treatment workhorses of the water industry, and are ubiquitous. You will find water treatment membranes in every Starbucks, hospital, and manufacturing plant as well as small and large municipal water and wastewater facilities. But the chemistry from which membranes are made has been essentially unchanged for decades. While there have been many outstanding advances in membrane technology over the years, due to their chemistry, membranes remain highly susceptible to organic fouling, which occurs when organic material clogs up their tiny pores. As membranes foul, their performance degrades, plant downtime increases, and energy demand goes up. To eliminate organic fouling, membranes require chemical cleaning, which is expensive, damages the membranes, and generates a secondary wastewater that is also expensive to manage. Traditional membranes never recover completely from these fouling-cleaning cycles and ultimately need to be replaced.
Why does this matter? Those unconventional waters vital to augmenting our water supplies are challenging to treat with traditional membranes, which either cannot treat unconventional waters or require complex and expensive pretreatment and chemical processing to prevent fouling. To access unconventional waters on a global scale, we need innovation in membrane chemistry.
ZwitterCo has developed patented platform technology that will reshape the performance and economics of membrane water treatment. The company’s membranes use fundamentally new chemistry based on zwitterionic co-polymers, making their membranes highly resistant to organic fouling and possessing the unprecedented ability to completely recover, as-new, from organic fouling using simple warm water washing. Where traditional membranes might require frequent downtime and chemical cleaning, and be replaced in months-to-quarters, ZwitterCo membranes will be easy to maintain and last for years. Already, ZwitterCo has high numbers of paying customers in industries like agriculture, food and beverages, bioprocessing, and oil and natural gas. Future ZwitterCo products will bring water reuse to industries whose water streams have until now been too dirty to treat.
Over the past two decades, DCVC has seen the power of co-locating core R&D, engineering, prototyping, and short-run commercial production. The opportunity for scientists and engineers to manage innovation from ideation to initial customer adoption in one location drives innovation speed, improves product fit, and also provides a location for collaboration with and training of customers and partners.
ZwitterCo designed its Innovation Center to rapidly evolve the company’s zwitterionic membrane platform, covering the entire spectrum of filtration applications and form factors. The facility combines wet chemistry and applications testing labs with full-scale polymer and membrane production equipment. This integration streamlines the entire product development process from concept to quality control. With the Innovation Center, ZwitterCo will accelerate its R&D cycles and rapidly scale new products, all while setting robust manufacturing and quality control standards.
The company has already realized the benefits of the Innovation Center with the launch of its Brackish Water Reverse-Osmosis (BWRO) membrane which is a drop-in replacement for conventional RO membranes and intended for customers currently experiencing RO treatment challenges. Thanks to the Innovation Center, the ZwitterCo BWRO went from ideation to first customer use in under six months, and the company is now oversubscribed on its pre-launch product orders.
In a world confronting unprecedented water deficits, unlocking circular models through technologies like zwitterionic membranes is no longer a luxury, but instead an imperative. ZwitterCo, with its newly launched Innovation Center, is leading the charge.
Jason Pontin is General Partner at DCVC. Earl Jones is an Operating Partner at DCVC.