Membrion is on track to become one of the loveliest success stories within the Water Industry. That’s everything but a coincidence: it is instead the result of a methodical build-up of the customer link. And you can actually steal this methodology today, as my guest rolls it out for you:
with 🎙️ Greg Newbloom, CEO and Founder of Membrion.
💧 Membrion strives to help industrial water users who aren’t satisfied with processes that are thousands of years old, and who’ve been searching for a better and lower-cost way to recycle or reuse their wastewater.
What we covered:
🚀 How Membrion ended up becoming a Water Company and how it was due to some smart investors
♻️ How shocking some of the common traits of the Water Industry can be for outsiders, and how that’s an opportunity to have a high impact
🔗 How the most precious asset for a young water company is to have a direct link to its customers and how to actually foster it
How there is nothing to win in reinventing the wheel: you shall leverage your peer’s knowledge. Plus, they’re willing to share!
💡 How you can treat any stream with a membrane, but only a few profitably – unless you have a trick to optimise or short-cut pre-treatment
🚚 How industrial wastewater that gets trucked away is a very complex soup to handle, and how to solve that riddle
🙌 How the right solution leads to a win-win: it is both profitable and sustainable
🤝 Starting a relationship by proving the solution can work in the worst possible conditions to win a customer’s confidence
🎲 Pivoting the company to define the right value chain segment to cover and growing from a membrane to a module
📈 How to transform a pilot into a demo, a full scale and ultimately a flagship reference
💧 How water scarcity brings back the real sense of the value of water, especially in an industrial context
🏎️ Connecting passion, technology, entrepreneurship, and harsh realities, how it feels to get accelerated from the inside, derisking new solutions, replacing an industry standard, testing waters to find the best market fit, the perks, and limits of ceramics
🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥
🔗 Check Membrion’s Website
🔗 Send your warmest regards to Greg on LinkedIn
is on Linkedin ➡️
Infographic: Fostering the Customer LinkInfographic-Membrion-Greg-Newbloom-Fostering-the-Customer-Link
Table of contents
- What we covered:
- Infographic: Fostering the Customer Link
- Full Transcript:
- Membrion sends a postcard from Seattle
- How it feels to get accelerated from the inside
- From a polymer specialist to a ceramic membrane company
- Membrion cuts the needs to truck Wastewater
- Inside Membrion’s technology
- How to deploy Membrion in concrete steps
- A first link in the resource recovery chain
- Membrion started out of Micro-Electronics
- How reducing instead of eliminating trucking limits end-user liabilities
- The road from pilot to first reference
- Greg Newbloom’s Trick you MUST copy TODAY
- How to Network in the Water Industry?
- Managing expectations as a Technology Company
- How Membrion alleviates Water Stress
- Automating Membrion’s solution
- Exploring the new field of Brine Mining
- Structuring your water company for success
- What’s Membrion’s metric for success?
- Rapid fire questions:
- Other Episodes:
These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂
Antoine Walter: Hi Greg welcome to the show.
Greg Newbloom: Thanks. Happy to be here.
Antoine Walter: I’m excited for many reasons for the conversation we’ll be having today. First, I’m excited because I was, Digging into your technology, digging into the applications you’re serving. And it had been a while that you were on my bucket list on topics I’d like to explore on that microphone.
And I don’t know if you heard it, but I had Scott Bryan on that microphone, and Scott Bryan told me he had a lot of fun with you at the Singapore International Water Week on top of everything else and all the other good reasons, which would make you an awesome guest on that microphone.
Membrion sends a postcard from Seattle
That’s the context in which you’re starting but still I have traditions on that microphone. So I’ll open with a postcard and you’ll sending us today a postcard from Seattle. So what can you tell me about Seattle, which I would ignore by now?
Greg Newbloom: I think for Seattle, really the thing that you want to pay attention to here is really just visiting during the summertime. Seattle’s worth being here for about three months a year, and the rest of the time, you know, steer clear.
Antoine Walter: And the rest of the time you can get a Starbucks at every corner.
Greg Newbloom: That’s right! Exactly. Any corner.
How it feels to get accelerated from the inside
Antoine Walter: So actually I thought that a good way to open that conversation with you is that I had on that microphone, several accelerators; we were having the Elemental Excellerator the European Water Tech Accelerator, Imagine H2O, which is the number one in that space. And we never covered how it is to be on the other side.
And so I was wondering, as a former member of a cohort of Imagine H2O, and I think you’re still a member of the cohort how is it like, what did you learn? How is it, how did you decide to apply? What’s the story here? Where does it start?
Greg Newbloom: So it’s definitely, you know, we’re now in their alumni network. But going into it, you know, for me coming as an outsider to the water industry, I don’t know if you remember like your first exposure, to the water industry. It’s like drinking out of a fire hose, right?
Discovering the Water Industry…
Pun intended. There’s just so much to learn. There’s so much nuance. And so, coming into that accelerator really was for us about, connecting the passion of our technology and entrepreneurship to the kind of hard realities of the water industry and how things get done and what moves the needle and delivers value for customers.
And I think for us, it really did act as truly as an accelerator. Things that would’ve taken us years, to figure out. We figured out in weeks because we got connected with the right people at the right time. For us it really was a transformational experience.
And I think that it speaks a lot to the way that they structure the program. I could, you know, gosh over Scott and and Lee and Ellie and the Imagine H2O folks. But yeah, it’s a phenomenal program. Startups should definitely take a look if they’re in the water sector.
… and leveraging the learnings!
Antoine Walter: You mentioned you were an outsider. You were at some point a NASA researcher, so how does that happen?
Greg Newbloom: So I, grew up. Like more interested in kind of the aerospace sector and yeah, spent some time at NASA and at Boeing and… You know, Seattle, we’ve got a lot of aerospace going on and did a lot of materials research.
That’s always been where my interest, curiosity has been and developed a new membrane and membranes are really what brought me into the water space. It’s really the technology we developed. And just some smart investors that joined us early on that said like, what this can do, you really should be thinking about water.
And I was like, oh, I don’t really know anything about water, so let’s start digging. And turns out there’s a lot to learn, so…
From a polymer specialist to a ceramic membrane company
Antoine Walter: but from what I’ve seen from your NASA years, it was about polymers at the time.
Greg Newbloom: Absolutely. Yep, exactly. It was polymers and nano composites and being able to develop really kind of robust materials in unique applications.
From that standpoint, the theme is very similar. Even if the application is, you know, we’re not sending anything to space here, but yeah, no, it’s definitely similar in that way.
An influential investor
Antoine Walter: So someone comes to you and says, your technology would make a lot of sense in the water sphere and up you go. Or you had to be convinced that it was worth to jump into water?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, I had to be convinced, you know, I think that early on it was one of those things where we didn’t know exactly where it could fit or what value it could deliver. And I think that, we were really focused early on around bridging both the technology to a value proposition and, what actually gets the customer excited.
You know, new technologies are always high risk and so there’s gotta be a reason why someone picks a high risk option over the tried and true method. So yeah, it took a lot of digging. It took a lot of talking to people throughout the water industry and to really understand what are the challenges that exist today?
And, where are technologies falling short? And then eventually we figured out that, there’s some spaces that what our technology can do fits quite nicely. But it definitely took a while to get there.
Membrion cuts the needs to truck Wastewater
Antoine Walter: so what are those spaces if you have to gimme just one problem that you’re solving, what is that problem?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, so I mean, I think the one that we are doing really well and we’ve got a lot of traction is in displacing trucking. I think that was one of the most shocking things I learned getting into the water industry is how common it is to truck wastewater from one site to another.
In our world of trying to do things more sustainably and more efficiently, the idea of loading water onto a truck and driving it somewhere it’s the antithesis of sustainability, right? So when, we learn that we’re like, oh, what’s the problem that exists there?
And often, it’s that you’ve got some contaminant that’s at too high of a concentration. It’s too complicated to treat on site or too expensive. And so people truck it to a centralized facility to be treated. And so we really started looking at what industries are frequently trucking wastewaters and what are the problems there?
Solving the inside problem of complex industrial soups
What we found is that it’s a lot of different industries that are doing it. And often the problems are quite similar in that there’s a reason that the water can’t be discharged or can’t be reused. And often that comes down to the salts, minerals, and metals that are in there. And that’s really what we can do from our technology is we can remove salts, minerals, and metals.
And we can do it under really, complex environments. And so that’s really where we found our ability to do something unique in that we don’t eliminate trucking cause we’re still a desalination technology. We still are gonna produce a brine. But we dramatically reduce the amount.
A lot of facilities might truck every day or multiple times a day. And we can drop that down to, once or twice a week or even as low as once a month. Depending on what all’s in there and what we’re moving.
Antoine Walter: They would be trucking wastewater as of today, they start using your technology, which has this magical number of 98% water recovery, which means that their volume that have to truck out is divided by 50. roughly and if I’m not too bad at maths and instead of trucking away wastewater, now, they’re trucking away brine.
Inside Membrion’s technology
But what is your technology all about?
Greg Newbloom: Really what we make is a ceramic ion exchange membrane. You know, If you’re familiar with ion exchange membranes, they get used in electrochemical technologies. So things like electrodialysis c d I, there’s a bunch of other technologies that leverage ion exchange or EDI technologies that leverage ion exchange membranes. But all of those are based off of polymers.
So all ion exchange membranes to date have been made from polymeric materials and they’re very delicate. It’s very hard to use them under kind of oxidizing conditions extreme pHs, temperatures, things like that.
And so it’s very much limited their applications both in water but in other sectors. As well. It’s limited their durability. And so by leveraging ceramic materials to do that, we can handle a lot of these ancillary contaminants that are otherwise very challenging and degrading for membranes that our membranes can otherwise tolerate.
A fascinating technology intersecting multiple verticals
Antoine Walter: We had some different definitions now in what you said. You said you’re desalination, you’re electrodialysis, you are an ion exchanger. I mean, for the layman, aka me here makes a lot of different directions. So is it like a Frankenstein where you took the best out of all the technologies or how did you grow up the technology?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah. So I would say, you know, for us, what we are using is effectively we’re using it in an electrodialysis application. So the same things that an Electrodialysis would be able to remove. So that’s anything that’s Charged, so ionic, we’re gonna be able to pull out of water. That’s really where what we’re doing that’s unique. And the thing that differentiates us from the traditional ion exchange membranes is that we make ours out of ceramic materials, which allows us to make it very thin.
So they can be very energy efficient in the actual process of removing those salts. And then we can also, because they’re more chemically and thermally durable, we’re able to handle these extreme environments. And really what that comes down to, it’s just limited pretreatment required, right?
I think someone once told me that you can treat any water stream with a membrane, if you have enough pre-treatment involved the reality is that at some point it becomes cost prohibitive to put all the pre-treatment in place. That’s really what’s unique about what we’re doing is it’s minimal pre-treatment while still achieving the outcomes of removing these ions.
How to deploy Membrion in concrete steps
Antoine Walter: When you say minimum pre-treatment, if I take a typical treatment train, and I know typical doesn’t exist in our industry, but let’s figure out it exists, how would it look like? Minimum? Does it mean you have no pre-treatment at all or would you still have a very rough filter in front of it?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, we’re still gonna have a rough filter. So we use cartridge filters and things like that on the front end to protect, you know, we still have spacers, and so really even if our membranes aren’t gonna get damaged, we don’t wanna clog the spacers. And so there are things like that, that that we have, but there’s a lot of, if we take, for example, some of the work that we’re doing in semiconductor facilities in those cases, One of the streams that we’ve been very successful with and we’re working with multiple different facilities on is with their copper wastewater stream.
And in particular they have many facilities have a high concentration copper wastewater stream and occasionally that’s getting trucked offsite for third party disposal. And in that case, what we’re doing is those streams are pH zero, they’ve got a couple percent hydrogen peroxide. They’ve got key Laing agents. So they have these elements to them. Any one of those would destroy an existing polymeric membrane. They just won’t work for any appreciable length of time, and so you would have to have three or four pre-treatment steps on the front end in order to have a suitable membrane.
Minimal pre-treatment requirements
But for us, we don’t need any of those pre-treatment steps. And so we’re able to remove that copper, which is the compound of interest, and then allow them to combine the rest of that with their bulk acid wastewater, things like that, which can then be treated and neutralized and things like that.
So it, it ends up making it economical to recover it and be able to reuse that water as opposed to having it sent off for a special treatment because copper is obviously environmentally hazardous as a material and things like that.
A first link in the resource recovery chain
Antoine Walter: So you mentioned compound of interest mentioning copper and you mentioned recovery. So to me, the obvious follow question is why do you still truck away that concentrate of copper isn’t there a way to recover that as well?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, they actually do still, so right now they truck it off and they recover it. So they’re gonna take it through a process. And sometimes that’ll go depending on the facility, you know, we work with facilities that’ll send that to electro winning or we’ll send it to some sort of thermal process first. And will recover the copper.
So a lot of facilities are, thinking in that circular way of wanting to recover the resources that are there. And the challenge though is that in order to do that, you ship a high volume of water. And really, you know, you can still recover that copper in. If it’s much more concentrated, it’s actually more energy efficient to recover that copper.
And so really in that way, everybody is winning. Even the waste processing facility is spending less money to recover that copper. On the backend, the only people that are losing are the people actually driving the trucks around cuz there’s fewer trucks that are needed to happen there.
Pre-treating effluents to get them to valorization
Antoine Walter: But the copper recovery would be outside of your scope. That’s not something that you look at as Membrion.
Greg Newbloom: That’s right. Exactly. We kind of, we look at ourselves as pairing with existing technologies to help make them more efficient. Recovering metals and things like that are way easier to do when concentrations are higher. And so from that standpoint we really look at ourselves as how do we pair with existing technologies to deliver a more efficient overall process as opposed to being the standalone solution to a problem. And so yeah, we often position ourselves as an efficiency enhancer.
Membrion started out of Micro-Electronics
Antoine Walter: So micro electronics was your starting home turf, if I may say so, and if I’m right you expand it since then into other applications. So how broad is the spectrum today?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, we had a lot of success in micro electronics and working with some of the biggest names in the space there. We have expanded to a few different sectors, really, with a, A goal of understanding the value proposition really well. So, you know, we’re running pilots in the oil and gas space in food and beverage automotive, with cooling towers.
We’re working towards pilots with mining companies. And all of these, , the streams that we’re finding and that we’re working on are ones that basically we, we approach a company. We say, give us your trickiest stream. This is what we can do. You know, we’re not, an ultra filter, we’re not a nano filter.
We remove ions. So if there’s a stream that, that’s the problem. And TDS is often becoming a problem from a discharge and a reuse standpoint. Then that’s really where we focus on. And so we ask folks to give us their hardest streams, and they almost always will point us towards something that they’re currently trucking offsite.
Something that they’re thermally, desalinating, something that they’re using a resin for. Especially if the resin is a single use resin. Those are the types of things that people say, , this process is costing millions of dollars a year in opex. Can you make it more efficient? And that’s really where we deliver the value.
How reducing instead of eliminating trucking limits end-user liabilities
Antoine Walter: Now, if I’m playing the devil’s advocate here, trucking off has a very big advantage. It’s that the second that wastewater is in the truck, it is no longer the problem of the industrial. Company. So can you one-to-one replace that argument by taking over all the liabilities of that water to be treated?
Greg Newbloom: I think this is where it’s really unique, in what we’re doing. Because we aren’t eliminating trucking, right? We’re pairing with trucking. What we’re doing is we’re basically saying, Hey look, you’re still gonna truck our brine offsite at the end of the day. So you’re not actually eliminating your existing unit process.
It’s still there. All you’re doing is trucking less water. You know, if you’re using a resin, all you’re doing is using less resin. You’re not eliminating the process. So this is really where, we focus on existing facilities who are paying a lot for the opex of running their existing process and saying, and this is, I think the great part we’ll tell the facilities.
Look from a risk standpoint, even if we don’t work long term, and our payback periods are great, they’re less than 24 months. So it’s pretty easy to convince people with a pilot, yeah, this is gonna last at least through the payback period. But even if we don’t work long term, basically you’ve made your money back, you’re running a more sustainable process.
And if it all else fails, you can go back to the way you were doing things without any risk, cuz you already have that process installed. You already know how to do it. And so that’s a really key component as a startup, is that we don’t take on the liability because we are working with the processes the facilities already use.
Antoine Walter: That is brilliantly clever.
Greg Newbloom: Thanks!
Antoine Walter: See it, not know that to explain it. It’s, so evident. I mean, somehow you are a trucking pre-treatment, so the trucking doesn’t vanish, but you’re making it just by a multiple more efficient,
Greg Newbloom: exactly.
The road from pilot to first reference
Antoine Walter: very clever. You said something, which I honestly rarely hear in that industry, which is pretty easy.
Is it really pretty easy to convince an industrial company as a startup with a new process that they should go and still take the risk of changing something which works, which is maybe expensive, but works?
Greg Newbloom: You know, it’s all a matter of perspective. I think that for us, the companies that we’re working with they all have ESG goals and objectives that they’re trying to hit. And so they’re looking for the new solution to these problems.
They know they need to change the way they’re doing things. They know it’s problematic for them. They know it’s expensive for them. And so when we come, and the alternative options, so just to provide an example, you know, some of the facilities we’re working with, then, we can provide a 18 month payback period for the performance of our technology.
Demonstrating superior performances
And the next nearest competitor is 54 months. That’s a project that we’re gearing up for to run a pilot starting in a couple weeks here. And so as we look with these facilities, it becomes, In that case, when our next nearest competitor is 54 month payback period, it is a very easy value proposition to sell of. And without that risk of, yeah, if it doesn’t work, you get to still use what you use today.
Basically we really work with facilities to help show them that there’s minimal risk in implementing the technology. And we prove that at multiple points along the way with bench scale tests, with pilot tests, partnering with integrators who know how to deploy this technology successfully.
Cuz that’s the other thing Membrion doesn’t do, is we don’t sell systems, we just sell modules. And so they get to work with the integrators that they know and love and trust who have grown to know us well enough to know that our technology works and they can deploy it. And so that’s really where we create for them an experience where they’re working with the same people they always work with but they’re getting to deploy something new at minimal risk to them.
Membrion’s step-by-step road to market
Antoine Walter: I still would like to put some spots on the different states of development. When was your first pilot? When did it start? The very first pilot unit?
Greg Newbloom: We started basically, we finished getting our membrane manufacturing line up and running middle of last year.
Antoine Walter: Editor on one here. Sorry to interrupt. This episode was recorded in 2022 and aired in 2023, so when Greg mentions last year, it is indeed 2021 back to Live.
Greg Newbloom: So we started our first pilot in the fall of last year. And that pilot was at one of the world’s largest semiconductors companies. We were treating copper wastewater
Antoine Walter: So you’re not allowed to say that it’s Intel.
Greg Newbloom: I’m not allowed to say who it is. But it’s a familiar brand. And I can’t say where, cuz you’d be able to pick out who it is. But we were running and we were able to successfully show that in that pilot the performance of our unit would reduce their operating expenses by 1.6 million a year and deliver a less than two year ROI In deploying the full system.
Teaming up with the right partners in the Water Industry
We brought in an integrator to be able to deploy that. And we’re basically working through all the details of how to get that system installed and the footprint and everything like that. And we should see installation early next year, for commercial installation of that unit. So that was the first pilot.
We have a two that are running right now that are almost finished and another one that’s getting started. And then we’ve got a backlog of pilots from there that are getting teed up. But we basically started piloting about a year ago is really when we first started this process.
We’re still at the beginning of the journey, very much so. And learning a lot. And, you know, the hardest part about that pilot was honestly was some of the things that had nothing to do with our membranes. That’s often the case, right? It’s how do you pump. A liquid that has, greater than 1% hydrogen peroxide and is literally bubbling, and those bubbles cavitate and cause your pumps to not be able to pump the liquid.
So we can’t get the liquid to our membrane. Those are the types of things we had to figure out on the pilot. The membranes did great. But it’s all the ancillary stuff. And this is really where, we’re in the process of, building partnerships with integrators who have the capability, who know how to do all these things, right?
We don’t, Membrion doesn’t need to figure out how to put the right pumps on a pilot unit. That’s not our expertise. We can let others do that well.
Finding Membrion’s role in the water foodchain going forward
Antoine Walter: So do you intend to partner with specific integrators or are you really agnostic when it comes to integrators? How much of mutual understanding and growing together is needed for integrator to pick up your technology?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, I mean, I think that , there definitely has to be motivation. It’s not a drop in technology. but it’s also not wholly new either, right? Because Electrodialysis has been around for a long time, but not every integrator knows how to deploy it. So certainly we have, preferred integrator who knows how to work with us really well, has success deploying our technology.
And we have others that are interested in learning how to do that and getting up to speed. But it’s never a simple, straightforward process to integrate a new technology. So there does have to be trust and buy-in from the integrator that, that they understand the value proposition. And in a lot of cases, when they see what we can do the value proposition clicks very quickly.
And so we do get folks that are interested in onboarding and learning how to do these things, but it is a process to learn for sure.
Greg Newbloom’s Trick you MUST copy TODAY
Antoine Walter: On your website, I counted 19 person working from Membrion. So I, is that an accurate number or do you have.
Greg Newbloom: I think that was probably accurate a couple months ago. I think we’re up to 24 now. And we’re getting ready to hire a few more as well. We are perpetually short staffed which I exposed is a good problem for a startup. So
Antoine Walter: The reason why I was asking that is that I was surprised to see that if anyone has an inquiry on your website, it’s not like there’s a contact formular and someone will come back to you. It is Greg Newbloom, our CEO, is gonna contact you, so you are going after all the inquiries. Why so?
Greg Newbloom: I think a lot of it is really at the stage that we’re at. There’s a lot of value in me having access directly to some of these customers, at least at the very beginning of the process, right? I think that people understanding who we are as a company, what we do and getting that response now I transition that off to my folks pretty quickly.
A strong customer link is invaluable
Because you know, I don’t have time to directly interact with people all the time. But I do like to talk and understand. And I think part of that helps keep me fresh as to where the strategy of the company needs to move. There’s nothing that can replace the voice of the customer as good as conferences and events are.
Nothing will replace hearing directly from someone with a problem.
Antoine Walter: It made me think of a book, which I loved reading now a while ago, which is Delivering Happiness from Tony Hsieh about the story of Zappos, and he’s explaining how he’s forced at the time at Zappos, all the executives to start working in customer service because that was the way for them to get connected to what the customer we’re asking and to the voice of the customer.
And it’s probably something we don’t do that often in the water industry. So it looks like you still have that outsider mind which is well adapted in that case. So it’s not just a marketing move, it’s really something that you do. So impressive.
Greg Newbloom: Yeah. Thanks.
How to Network in the Water Industry?
Antoine Walter: You mentioned the conferences and that is something where you’re quite active as well. I’ve seen you at the BlueTech Forum in Vancouver. You were at the Singapore International Water Week. I see on your blog that you regularly update everybody about what you’ve seen at the conference, how that resonates with your roadmap and where you’re heading.
Why do you go to those conferences and do you have best practices as to how to take the best out of those?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah. I mean, I go for for kind of that same reason of trying to connect with our customers. We solve problems for end users, but integrators are ultimately the ones that are buying modules from us and working with us and building those channel partnerships is really critical.
And so, if they’re gonna be there, then I gotta be there to be able to talk with them and see people and interact. And I think that for those conferences, I’m very targeted in what I’m focused on and why I’m outta space. Like I’m getting ready to go to ultra Pure Micro here, which is the big kinda a water conference in the semiconductor space.
And so those are the types of things where I wanna make sure for sectors that we’re in that I’m on the ground hearing what people are talking. You know, what are the problems that are there and making sure that, our technology’s not gonna solve every problem.
But I wanna make sure that if we’re focused on a segment of the market, that we’re solving a problem that’s top of mind. Cuz otherwise it’s an uphill battle to try to get attention in any segment. And so you really gotta find where the attention already is.
Managing expectations as a Technology Company
Antoine Walter: So it’s good to hear that your technology will not solve every problem because there is, I would say, a common pattern between some of the guests I had on that microphone. Namely, I would say Haris Kadrispahic from LiqTech. I would mention Sebastian Andreassen from Cembrane, Kay Gunther Gabriel, for which we didn’t publish the episode for some, let’s say, political reasons.
It was just before the war in Ukraine. So bad timing for the episode. But one thing is common to everything they said is that, To them, ceramics is the answer. Ceramics will wipe out polymerics, and they’re so much better than all the other polymeric membranes that they can solve everything.
And honestly, I am no one to judge if that’s true or false. But from all the ceramic folks, you’re the first one to say you don’t have an answer to all the problems.
Know what you’re stellar at, also know your limits!
Greg Newbloom: No, I mean, you’d be surprised, we are obviously in a different space than a lot of those companies who are doing more microfiltration, ultra filtration things like that. We compete against, for example reverse osmosis in some applications, and a lot of times the number of times where customers bring a water source to us that’s fairly benign, we will tell them this is, you’d be better off with RO on this.
Or you’d be better off with a polymer solution because the reality is ceramics they deliver a ton of value, but they also aren’t cheap. That’s really where you have to understand the techno economics of where do you deliver superior value? And where are we coming through with something truly unique in the space?
And I do think that ceramics do deliver a ton of value, but it’s not for free. And so that’s where really we again, look at how do we pair with the right technology. Sometimes we’ll go after an RO or before an RO but you know, it’s really about how do we work in tandem as opposed to how do we be the be all, end all solution to a problem.
How Membrion alleviates Water Stress
Antoine Walter: You mentioned the economics and you mentioned how technically it works and it simplifies the process. There’s one driver which we haven’t touched yet, which is the water driver, because I guess if you have this 98% water recovery for facilities, which might be at a water stress, we’ve seen that with microelectronics in Taiwan last year and it is a recurring topic.
Yeah, water is scarcer and scarcer. Does that play a role in the decision process of the industrials or not yet?
Greg Newbloom: I’d say it, it depends in some facilities it does. And certainly a lot of the spaces that we’re working in North America are in kind of the southwest United States, which are experiencing record droughts. And, you know, a lot of the facilities that we’re working with are talking about concerns with local governments, restricting access to water.
And when those concepts come up, people start thinking differently about water, right? When water is abundant, people think about the cost of water. How much do I pay per meter cubed for this water and what’s my payback? And all those sorts of things.
Reconnecting with the Value of Water
When you don’t have enough water, you start thinking about the value of water. Well, if I don’t get as much as I need, how much revenue do I lose? And all of a sudden, you know, your cost your cost of water. Versus the value of water. It’s almost a hundred x different between the value your water generates.
And so in that case, when facilities are saying we might not have enough. Or maybe we have enough now, but that might change in six months. It does put a lot different threshold on what payback looks like. A two to three year payback period can change to a one to two month payback period if you are looking at the value that additional water generates if you don’t have enough.
And so that’s certainly coming through in some of the facilities that we’re working with, especially as we’re helping to treat brine that otherwise they’re just discharging cuz they don’t have a way to economically treat it today. So we help people bridge those economics and bridge the practical realities.
But I’d say we’re kind of in that mix of ESG and helping address some of the water scarcity issues.
Automating Membrion’s solution
Antoine Walter: I’ve seen in one of your brochures that you promote how your system has a simpler automation compared to the status quo or the market standard. And I thought that would be then even better of a solution for distributed solutions or smaller systems because you can scale. I mean, you have less of that scale effect because you don’t need to have a big facility to have a lot of people sitting there if you can automate everything.
So what makes it easier or more convenient to automate?
Greg Newbloom: some of it comes from the benefits, that electrodialysis as a technologies is fairly easy to automate. There’s a lot of steps that require fewer chemicals because you can clean using different tricks with the electricity. With our membranes in particular the nature of the ceramics this is one of the kind of universal value proposition of the ceramics, that they tend to be low fouling.
So you don’t have to clean them as often, and when you do clean them, you can clean them fast and aggressive to restore their performance. And so those sorts of things where we can really lean into a kind of minimum maintenance automated maintenance using the electric field reversal for the electric dialysis technology.
De-risking a new technology
Things like that really do help to make it simple. Cause we do get that a lot from facilities that say, Hey, You know, what’s the maintenance cost of this? Or how frequently am I gonna have to check on this thing? It’s a new technology. Do I have to baby it? And the reality is no, you don’t have to check it any more frequently and often, much less frequently than ROs and similar technologies.
Antoine Walter: You seem to have a technology which is very performing. I mean, 25% better was the lowest value I’ve found online as the comparison to the next better one. So it sounds like something, which is really outstanding, you are partnering with integrators. So you are really focusing on your zone of genius, if I might say so.
So what’s on the horizon for you? Where do you intend to grow and how?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah. So I think, you know, immediately, on the near term horizon, for us, a lot of where we’re focusing is on brine. Which is really taking Electrodialysis into a space that it’s never been before. And bringing some of the unique value proposition into that segment where, we’re able to treat things up to close to saturation.
Membrion’s expected performances
Very energy efficiently because we can make and these are things that we work with partners on, but we can make membranes that are extremely thin. That’s an advantage of the ceramics that we work with. And so, so that delivers a lot of value. And so really thinking about how do you like as we move towards MLD ZLD schemes how do you take what’s coming outta the back end of the RO?
And more economically pull out that salt. Because really the trend is to the extent that you can minimize the amount that you have to use an evaporator crystallizer, the economics of ZLD are gonna get better and better. And so that’s really where we think we’ve got a role to play in that portion of the market.
And then really focusing on precision separations is also where we’re moving our membranes have the ability we can make our pores bigger and smaller to selectively filter one ion over another. And so as we look at being able to leverage things like brine mining elements that’s really something that we’re focused on, is being able to selectively remove key target metals and minerals of value.
Exploring the new field of Brine Mining
Antoine Walter: Talking of Brine Mining. It is just on the other side of the border compared to where you are. But I guess you must know Saltworks and Ben Sparrow, he was on that microphone some months ago and it made me think of you going in a similar direction, which sounds to be really Consistent with the times.
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, absolutely. No, I think there’s a ton of value there, and it’s a space that is, there’s not a whole lot of traction in, so it’s really a wide open space from a who’s gonna deliver the most value from a technology perspective.
Teaming up for best sector coverage
Antoine Walter: From a business standpoint. You mentioned how you’re working with integrators. Would it make sense on the longer term to work closer with some integrators and to have like, a real deep partnership, for them to be your vehicle for growth?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the things that we’re considering is how do you find the right partner in the right sectors and for the right stage for us as a company. And so that continues to be an ongoing kind of strategic element for us. And we’ve had to tell quite a few integrators no!
We’ve had a lot of people reach out and say they wanna work with us, and it just wasn’t the right fit for us at the time. And so we had to pass. So I think that there’s some of those elements of, we are very selective with who we work with today. And really building out those partnerships to be able to scale is what we’re focused on.
Structuring your water company for success
Antoine Walter: Is the fact that you have Sivan Zamir as your director of the board, a hint towards a good way to partner with an integrator or a larger player in the future.
Greg Newbloom: I think having Sivan on our board has been phenomenal. I mean, she’s brilliant. And I think very unique. You know, one of the things that we really wanted on our board of directors and, and Sivan has it and Amanda Richie has, it’s another one of our directors is that deep water expertise and expertise, bringing new technologies to market and expertise in membranes.
And those people end up, in high level positions in water treatment companies that ultimately can’t work with us because there’s conflicts of interest. And that’s something that’s really unique about Xylem is that what we’re doing is really outside of their business model. So we were able to get Sivan on our board without any conflicts which has been phenomenal.
She’s made a huge impact in the few months that she’s been with us.
Antoine Walter: So it’s not a hint towards. A future collaboration much closer.
Greg Newbloom: I will I will leave that to the imagination.
Antoine Walter: I have a broad imagination, so…
Greg Newbloom: Sure.
What’s Membrion’s metric for success?
Antoine Walter: I have a crystal ball question for you to close that deep dive, which is, if you look into the next five years or the next 10 years, what is a metric which tells you you’ve been successful?
Greg Newbloom: I think for us it’s we’re really looking at metrics around CO2 emissions reduced and water recovered. And I think that’s really as we’re growing a lot of the projects that we’re focused on is, how are we returning water to be useful again?
And really pushing that reuse of streams that you otherwise can’t reuse. And doing that in a way that reduces the amount of CO2 over the status quo today. It’s really easy to recover more water and spend more energy doing it. A lot of people have solutions for that, but being able to accomplish both of those, I think that’s really our guiding star as we look at applications where we deliver value and what we view as success is more water while spending less energy than we’re spending today.
Antoine Walter: How do you track the CO2 that you avoid emitting?
Greg Newbloom: You know, when we work with facilities, we understand where they’re trucking their water off to, if they’re, you know, some facilities are using thermal processes. All of those are fairly easy to go and do calculations. And then we look at, as we’re deploying commercial systems, what’s the offset values relative to the technologies, because as I mentioned.
We are enhancing the existing technology. So if someone’s using a thermal process, we’re just helping them send less volume there. So it’s very easy for us to track what the actual offsets of the process are. And so that’s really gonna be our guiding star moving forward.
Antoine Walter: Well, Greg, it’s been a pleasure to walk through that deep dive with you. Thanks a lot for the openness, and I hope I didn’t push you too hard with my stupid insisting question
Greg Newbloom: No, it’s gonna get married with one or the other.
Antoine Walter: To round it off, I propose you to switch the rapid fire questions.
Greg Newbloom: Sure.
Rapid fire questions:
Antoine Walter: So in that last section, I try to keep the question short and your aim is to have short answers, but I’m never cutting the microphone. My first question is, what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on and why?
Greg Newbloom: There’s a fun one that we’ve been working on recently with a major food company where we’re treating a hotdog brine that has a TDS limit problem. Very, has a very unique aroma to it. And we’re actually gonna hopefully be getting a nice large container of it to our facility before we run a pilot with them.
And so that’s definitely an interesting one. And one that connects with all the senses, if you will.
Antoine Walter: Hot dog Brine. That’s something I never heard.
Greg Newbloom: brine. Exactly. Yeah. Makes you not wanna necessarily eat hot dogs, but it’s definitely a challenging wastewater.
Antoine Walter: can you name one thing that you’ve learned the hard way?
Greg Newbloom: Oh, yeah, . Choosing one is gonna be the hard thing. I think that really it’s being able to stay in our lane and find the right partners. I think that’s something where, you know, understanding what we do well versus what other people do well, you know, I mentioned some of that earlier.
That’s really things that we spent months learning things that other people already knew, so now we’re much more eager to just find people who already know what they’re doing.
Antoine Walter: I have to sidetrack here. I should have asked in the deep dive I’m wondering you have this very clear focus of saying, this is what we do, we deliver the modules. Was that clear from day one that is what you wanted to do or. Yeah, did you have a different expectation and that ended up being the best way to go to market?
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, completely different expectation. We were hoping to just be able to sell membranes to people who would then make modules and go to market. And what we found is that the folks that knew how to make modules were just, they were running into integration challenges and it was slow.
And they wanted to really cheap membrane that they could use in the exact same applications they’re using today. And while our membranes are less expensive to make than a traditional ion exchange membrane, basically we felt the squeeze. And we realized that it was a lot better if we went directly to the end user and heard their problems and figured out what we could do.
And that’s really kind of flipped it and said, okay, well we need to make a module because. If we wanna be in, have some semblance of being able to work directly with people, we need to have a way to deploy that with people. And so yeah, we, we’ve pivoted quite a few times along the way to a product that works.
And we think this is the sweet spot. We don’t think, we have enough, we’ve got good relationships with integrators. We don’t think we’re gonna have to go up again. And so we think we found a, found the sweet spot.
Antoine Walter: It’s fascinating because it’s really a similar story to the one that Sebastian Andreassen from Cembrane explained on the microphone how they wanted to build the membrane, and how they found out they had to do the modules because that was really the critical mass to succeed in that market. Yeah.
Thanks. there something you’re doing in your job today that you won’t be doing in 10 years?
Greg Newbloom: Probably answering those emails is probably something I won’t be doing in 10 years. But I think that, yeah, I think that there’s a lot of things even as over the last few years that I no longer do. Today I’m no longer in the lab for example, which is a little bit of a bummer as someone who’s, you know, very technical in nature.
But but yeah I think. I’m gonna have to figure out how to connect with customers in a different way than answering emails directly.
Antoine Walter: How many of these emails you receive per week?
Greg Newbloom: Usually it’s three to four is what we’re getting from an inbound that are, you know, directly relevant from a customer standpoint.
Antoine Walter: and you think that’s you could stop that because usually it’s kind of a, you know, it’s when you’re accustomed to it, it’s, you have the pulse of the customer.
Greg Newbloom: Yes,
Antoine Walter: letting that go must be really difficult.
Greg Newbloom: exactly. Which is why, you know, no, no intention of, you know, letting those direct relationships lapse anytime soon. But in 10 years from now, Membrion is gonna be way too big to be able to handle all that, so,
Antoine Walter: Makes a lot of sense. What is the trend to watch out for in the water sector?
Greg Newbloom: I think the I think the impacts of water scarcity and even water abundance are very much in their infancy. I think that it’s gonna create all sorts of really. Unique problems and lead to a lot of really unique solutions that don’t exist today cuz facilities are used to getting easy water.
And so I think that those like macro trends around too much water and too little water are things that we’ve gotta pay more attention to and be ready for.
Antoine Walter: If you were a world political leader, what would be your very first action to influence the fate of the world? Water challenges.
Greg Newbloom: Ooh, good question. I maybe you know, I think one of the things that surprised me most in the water industry is the disconnect between. Or the subsidies that are related to water and how that really warps the value that we see in water. Because it’s so highly subsidized and I understand that cuz it’s a basic human need, so we can’t charge people to live.
But I think that there are ways to remove some of those subsidies, especially for industry and agriculture. And force some of those costs to trickle through would have a massive impact on the way we do things and the way we can serve water in particular would change dramatically if businesses were paying full fare for the water that they’re using.
Antoine Walter: I think I would vote for you as a world political leader. So you have one voice. It’s a start. Well, Greg, it’s been a real pleasure. I mean, Scott had set the bar quite high in terms of expectations of what I would expect from that car. Conversation and you outperform. So, so thanks a lot for the openness.
If people want to connect with you after that discussion, I guess they know how to do, they just go on the Membrion
Greg Newbloom: exactly.
Antoine Walter: they enter a customer inquiry, right?
Greg Newbloom: Exactly. Yep. They can. They can do that Also. LinkedIn is great as well. You know, either way is great.
Antoine Walter: would you have someone to recommend me that? They should definitely invite on that microphone.
Greg Newbloom: Yeah, I mean, if you haven’t, I don’t think you, have you had a chance to talk to Alex Rapaport yet? From Zwitter co. Yeah. So Alex is phenomenal, you know, of all the di there’s a lot of different membrane technology companies out there, and obviously, you know, Alex and the Zwitter co folks are doing something.
In a different space. More nano filtration than desal. But their stuff is really cool and Alex is a great guy. I think you’d have a lot of fun talking with him.
Antoine Walter: Okay, sidetrack warning here. There’s 1000 membrane companies. How can it be? I mean, really real figure. There’s really 1000 and I’m hoping one day to bump into one where I’m saying, oh, this one, I’ve seen it before. Like there’s another one which is similar and it’s not true. Every single membrane company I’ve discussed with was really different and has a lot of reasons for it, for existing.
I cannot say it’s redundant. So, Is water really such a special snowflake that it needs 1000 different ways to treat it with membrane?
Greg Newbloom: Probably not. I think, you know, as I looked more in the water space, so much of it, so many membrane, there’s a lot of like new membrane companies that come and they go and they get a little bit of traction and then they go back down because while they, we get very tied up into love of technology, love of performance, interest in what something can do that’s new.
But then you start running the numbers and the costs and the value it delivers and it’s. It’s not a lot different than just, you know, adding an ultra filter on the front end of an RO. You know, and so that’s I think where we miss the bar in new technologies. And that’s why I think that there’s probably at least a hundred membranes that are needed cuz water is very nuanced, but a thousand uh, that’s probably a little overkill.
Antoine Walter: Sorry for the ending of the conversation, sidetrack, but I to ask that one and to, I would’ve hated and not raising it because it, it sounded like you, you would have an informal opinion, which you had so. Again, Greg, thanks a lot and I hope you to cover the next steps pretty soon because you will have your full scale with that mysterious company next year and I guess that would be
Greg Newbloom: if you tracked it down, if you looked through some of my LinkedIn posts, you could probably figure out who it is. They’ve spoken on their behalf about what we’re doing, so it’s easy enough to find it. I just can’t say their name out loud. So mysteries.
Antoine Walter: So thanks a lot and talk to you soon.
Greg Newbloom: Wonderful. Thanks.