AMHERST — In a water testing laboratory at the University of Massachusetts, a researcher has identified the technology that can remove contaminants from water more thoroughly, and less expensively, than similar products already on the market.
Following her discovery of a method that uses electricity to create a reaction to purify the water, Julie Bliss Mullen, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, teamed with Leverett native Barrett Mully to found Aclarity, LLC, a company they believe will be offering a scalable technology that allows water in a small bottle to be cleaned as easily as the water in a specific household sink, at an entire home and, eventually, for a whole city or town.
“This can be a transformational technology to clean water better than anything out there,” Mully said.
Aclarity, founded in 2017 and already developing under-the-sink prototypes to clean water from a faucet, won the $26,000 grand prize last year at the Innovation Challenge at UMass, a program of Isenberg School of Management’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, and recently took second place at Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator program, and with it a $27,500 award.
Now, Aclarity is being highlighted by the Innovation Series, a PeoplesBank-initiated program that aims to bring more attention and publicity to local startup companies.
While the Innovation Series doesn’t come with cash prizes, Matthew Bannister, first vice president for marketing and innovation at PeoplesBank, said that the bank looks to not only promote the work of these companies, but inspire other entrepreneurs.
This is being done by the filming of interviews Bannister does with the company founders and then putting these three- to four-minute segments, also featuring footage of the entrepreneurs at work, on the bank’s website and YouTube. Each gives an understanding of how the companies created their concepts and their potential to be successful.
“We hope at the end of this will be a little bit of a guide for entrepreneurs who are setting out on the road,” Bannister said.
So far, Bannister has recorded four of the six in the planned series, spotlighting success stories from Valley Venture Mentors. In addition to Alcarity, the series includes AnyCafe, Inc., which has created a sort of K-Cup for a travel mug, and New England Breath Technologies, which allows diabetics to diagnose their glucose levels by breath rather than pricking their skin. The fourth segment is an overview of Valley Venture Mentors.
Before this, a lot of the innovation focus at PeoplesBank was for internal use or for customers, such as fingerprint identification and being able to photograph checks before they are deposited.
“What we wanted to do was to get involved in promoting innovation outside our walls,” Bannister said.
Mully was a teaching assistant for an entrepreneurship class as he pursued his Master of Business Administration at Isenberg when he met Mullen and found out about what she had learned while doing work in the E Lab II building.
“This is where she discovered the technology,” Mully said during a recent interview in the building.
“I thought a universal water purification platform could be a feel-good product,” said Mully, who is now full-time chief operating officer for Aclarity.
Existing technologies include the carbon filter, ultraviolet light or reverse osmosis.
Mullen’s technology kills pathogens, treats toxic organics and removes metals through electricity, and, if available, could solve the Flint, Mich., water crisis by providing a treatment option that conserves resources and energy, as well as not requiring all treatment to be done at a centralized location.
A portable prototype even went to India with Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, where he demonstrated it in a rural part of the country using solar power.
Mullen, who is still pursuing her doctorate, continues to do validation and testing, and gathering hard data.
Birton Cowden, director of New Venture Development at the Berthiaume Center, said Aclarity has a lot of the ingredients for success, including projectable technology, founders with knowledge of what they can and can’t do and identification of the right industry partners.
Mullen and Mully participated in a summer accelerator in 2017 when the team was paid $5,000 to stay on campus and was given space for their work. Aclarity still has space at Berthiaume.
“We continue to try to help them reach their goals,” Cowden said.
While a proven prototype, Mully said Alcarity still needs to understand any barriers to its successful implementation.
The company is collaborating with a major corporation already involved in applications and Watts Water Technology Inc., which will independently test the viability. The plan is to work with the company to bring it to the residential market, targeting homeowners initially, and will sublicense technology to them, and then can begin scaling up. Aclarity has received federal and state grants to do pilot sites, Mully said.
UMass owns the intellectual property, and Aclarity is going through the licensing process and has a patent pending for what Mully calls the “secret sauce” that is used in the product.
Aclarity has raised more than $150,000 through grants and other programs, including a state grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center for $65,000 for product development.
It also recently got $225,000 from the federal Small Business Innovation Research, which will allow Aclarity to move into the Institute for Applied Life Sciences building, a more formal setting for the continued work.
In six to 13 months, Mully said there is a need to raise $2 million to $5 million, then to get $10 million to $50 million in capital. If all goes well with grants and potential partners, Mully said by the third quarter of 2020, Aclarity’s product will be sold.
“That’s when it hits market for residential customers,” Mully said.