Zwitterions’ Super Powers Could Solve Wastewater Membranes Number One Problem

Zwitterions are weird beasts with two fascinating perks: being simultaneously positively and negatively charged turns them highly hydrophilic and very resistant to non-specific adhesion. Wouldn’t that make them the best special sauce to pump up a membrane filtration system? Let’s find out!

with 🎙️ Alex Rappaport, CEO and Co-Founder of ZwitterCo. 

💧 ZwitterCo leverages the benefits of Zwitterions to build Membranes that treat the world’s toughest wastewater. 

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Infographic: Zwitterions turned into Wastewater Treatment Membranes


What we covered:

⚛️ How ZwitterCo’s unique leverage of zwitterions overcomes membranes greatest weakness: fouling

🚀 How Alex Rappaport built a record-breaking membrane scale-up somewhat against the odds and how ZwitterCo was founded

📅 How improving membranes and wastewater treatment was on the founding team’s agenda from Day 1 and how they executed on it

🦸 How ZwitterCo leveraged the SuperFiltration category to depict the unique properties of their wastewater membrane

💡 How Water Scarcity and its increased awareness in industrial circles create a massive opportunity for the right set of technologies to address it

🚚 How ZwitterCo defined its scope of deliveries and how the company decided for the best-suited Go-To Market Route

🙌 How Alex’s company just raised a record-breaking Series A and what this will unlock

🌱 How the real impact ZwitterCo is aiming for goes beyond numbers – even if we are talking unicorn potential

🇩🇪 What “Zwitter” actually means, how zwitterions are special animals, extending the range, leveraging real-world cases and feedback

🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥 


🔗 Check ZwitterCo’s Website

🔗 Send your warmest regards to Alex on LinkedIn

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Table of contents

Full Transcript:

These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂

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Antoine Walter: Hi Alex. Welcome to the show.

Alex Rappaport: Excellent. Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zwitterions are named after the German Word “Zwitter”

Antoine Walter: I have a first riddle that you need to answer for me. I heard that the word Zwitterion comes from German. So do you pronounce it like the Germans, like ZwitterCo (dzwitterco), or is it ZwitterCo (zouitterco)?

Alex Rappaport: it is ZwitterCo. I will say we have had several members of our larger circle who have German roots, and I have often been getting the linguistic lesson about the origins of our company name!

Yeah, Zwitter, actually, has some meaning in scientific usage here. The zwitterions are both positively and negatively charged.

Zwitterions are at the same time positively and negatively charged

Zwitter as a German word refers to both, the hybridization, right? That, the positive and negative there. So, the science checks out with the language.

ZwitterCo is based out of Cambridge, MS

Antoine Walter: So that was a teaser. What we might be discussing later on, but I have traditions on that microphone and it starts with the postcard. So what can you tell me about the place you’re at, which I do believe is Cambridge? What I would ignore by now,

Alex Rappaport: Absolutely. So we’re actually right on the outskirts of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Actually our headquarters is in Woburn. And one of the beautiful things that I get to see on my drive to work every day is that we are right outside the Middlesex Fells reservation, which is this large. Forest and reservoir that I get to drive through.

So you have this beautiful Vistage of water the way I start my day before coming into the office. It’s a wonderful place to get to see.

ZwitterCo spun off of TUFTS University

Antoine Walter: So does that mean that you have a special link with water or how did you encounter that topic? Was it at university? Was it before university? Was it after university?

Alex Rappaport: Yeah, so it did proceed University. I can’t say that I ever wrote on a middle school. What I want to be when I grow up is someone who works in membranes. But I did know that I wanted to be in Cleantech, right, in sustainable technologies. And part of where my love for. The environment for the natural world.

And how that ended up folding into my career path was I was a river raft guide. I used to teach whitewater standup paddle boarding to campers, you know, aged seven to 15. It sounds scarier than it is, but it is standing on a paddle board in the middle of class three, class four whitewater couple very scary near miss scenarios there.

Alex Rappaport spun off TUFTS University research on Zwitterions applied to membranes into ZwitterCo
TUFTS University

I used to spend all of my summers on the Potomac River outside of the Maryland DC area. And so those experiences the communities that were built, spending so much time in nature, and then knowing obviously , that there’s a whole bunch of challenges in the world that we’re experiencing.

That was why I went into environmental engineering, and that was some of the passion underlying the birth of ZwitterCo.

Seeing Alex succeed in Water Entrepreneurship may have been a surprise for his University Professors

Antoine Walter: So going into environmental engineering, that’s one thing, but still going into entrepreneurship in that field isn’t the common route. Might be more developed nowadays than it was a while ago, but still, when did you decide you wanted to be an entrepreneur? Was it from the beginning of your university days or at some point you thought, oh, that’s really so cool, I have to create a company order that.

Alex Rappaport: I really hope at some point some of my old environmental engineering professors get to hear some of these stories cuz I was not the student that they might’ve expected, would’ve ended up actually pursuing a career in environmental technology, let’s say I would not have been the first on that list.

I obviously loved the discipline and I loved the idea of technology for solving environmental challenges. Entrepreneurship was my second love at school. I come from TUFTS University. A lot of the technology and the team members at ZwitterCo also came from Tufts.

I was the head of the undergrad entrepreneurship club. I had the fortune to build relationships with a lot of the professors in the entrepreneurship and engineering management departments at Tufts.

And when I was first exposed to the idea of actually doing rapid prototyping, rapid business model development, lean Six Sigma… All the concepts that help you organize how you would build a venture and how you would take technology through the rapid commercialization pathway that dovetailed with engineering as a sort of engineering as the medium and entrepreneurship as the force. And the two of them together.

“Stumbling” upon the technology that turned Zwitterions into a Membrane changed the game

When I had the opportunity, when I sort of stumbled upon the technology that now is the basis of what we work on at ZwitterCo it was a wonderful match between.

There was something that had this vast performance enhancement and that could be used for these incredibly challenging industrial wastewater treatment opportunities. And that was just at that nascent stage of something new had been made, but it had only been at the stage of lab scale technology and patented work.

There had been no commercialization plan organized, so I got. Take a lot of the learning that I had built over the last few years in early stage venture development and apply that to something , that I cared so deeply about, which was doing work in the water space.

Alex met the perfect match in Chris Drover’s sector experience to build up ZwitterCo

Antoine Walter: You mentioned how a lot of the people working with you today also come from Tufts University. If I’m right, that’s the case of your co-founder, but not exactly the same time than you. So what’s the story? Where do you meet?

Alex Rappaport: Yeah, sure. So Chris Drover is my senior by a few years. I won’t age him too far. But he was previously at Doble Engineering and then at Oasys Water which in its own right was a company that had really been pushing the boundaries on membrane technology, working on forward osmosis for brine concentration.

And so, as Oasys in that journey was winding down, he had really well connected his experience within the chemical engineering world at Tufts.

And the invention behind ZwitterCo’s technology is a novel material, right? A new chemistry for membranes. And that had come out of one of the research labs out of the chemmy department.

All came right for the launch of ZwitterCo during Alex’s last semester at TUFTS

So I had been spending the last couple semesters working on building the business case for how we would go scale and commercialize and gain funding to support the growth of the company.

And I had walked away from my master’s program with a business plan, with a first place prize in the Tuft’s 100k competition, about $10,000 in the bank account, and no idea what I was doing. So it was about that point that I started working more closely with Ayesha asset taken.

The professor who invented these new class of material, And we had been working together on what is gonna be the path to first prototype, to first scaled up process, to first customer test, and how do we replicate and better create quality structures around the things that they were doing by hand in a lab we needed to transfer to industrial sale production.

We had been tossing some ideas around. I came up with, let’s call some not so intelligent ideas about how you scale membrane technology and the more she was sort of aware of the needs we were about to go under, the more important it was that we started to really build the technical firepower behind the company.

Building up the perfect founding team

So she actually connected me to Chris Drover. And that was a wonderful first union. As we think about all the challenges that we had in our first few years, figuring out what this chemistry really was, how we would end up translating it to something where you could be producing miles of membrane into really well controlled circumstances, and that we knew how to tune and tailor the performance to the different applications we cared about.

Chris has just such a wealth of background, everything from the organic chemistry to the design for manufacturer to running R&D operations to the development of intellectual property and so much more. So, that was one of the things that helped us all jump off a cliff together as I was graduating, as we were forming the company, was the knowledge of the sort of collaborative skillsets that we were each bringing into this.

ZwitterCo’s special sauce lies in the Zwitterionic Copolymer

Antoine Walter: You mentioned several times the material, which is at the core of what you’re doing, what is it? Is it the Zwitterion? Is it the polymer? What is this core special sauce?

Alex Rappaport: It is a Zwitterionic copolymer, Two core backbones to the material. What we refer to as the co-polymer is actually a class of materials. So there are different kinds of compounds or constituents that you can include within that sort of base idea of the recipe. But the co-polymer is the active layer, right?

So we are using Pressure based tangential flow filtration the same way that you would think about for any other flat sheet or spiral wound membrane configuration. But the difference is the active layer that actually encounters the wastewater is made from this Zwitterionic copolymer.

So what it does, the way it works, why it has the performance it has is the relationship between the Zwitterionic group and an hydrophobic group that it is co polymerized with. So let’s do a first quick story on Zwitterions and why they’re relevant here.

Zwitterions are some of the most hydrophilic materials known to man

They are positively and negatively charged by definition. That means that they behave like a salt or they have a strong affinity to interact with polar solutions like water. And that allows them to be really hydrophilic. The Zwitterions we use are actually so hydrophilic, they’re hygroscopic.

We have to operate in a desicant chamber when handling them in certain circumstances cuz they’ll wick moisture out of the air and swell into a gel.

So you have this material that loves water. If you made a membrane just out of Zwitterions, it would dissolve immediately, which would not be very effective for filtration.

And so different attempts to integrate hydrophilic compounds and Zwitterions specifically into membrane chemistry have been something that people have been exploring over the last couple of decades.

Most of the attempts have been post-processing methods, grafting of these Zwitterions chains onto existing polymer bases.

… so hydrophilic that they may become week unless you use them right

And the challenge that was found in a lot of those use cases was, Superficiality that it both helped create some surface improvement, but that it was not something that was super long lasting and robust.

And when it comes to the reason why membranes or filters clog, why they are, Often experiencing challenging operations or failure modes when you throw lots of fat soils in grease and other challenging compounds at them is not just that the surface fouls up, but you actually have poor penetration.

Stuff gets stuck inside the matrix of the membrane. And when you do a surface treatment of Zwitterionic style coating. That’s only the two-dimensional layer at the very top. You need the whole three-dimensional structure to be fouling resistant. If you’re gonna really change the way that a membrane is operable.

Marrying Zwitterions with an hydrophobic co-polymer brings the best of two worlds

So now you enter in the sort of second half of the equation, which is the zwitterionic group is co polymerized with a hydrophobic group. And what you get here is because those two groups have such different energetic behavior, you can institute a self-assembling property. Where as our membrane is formed, the Zwitterions will orient themself to become the pores of the membrane.

So this is no longer just a surface level alteration. The pore structure itself, the passageway that water transfers through is all Zwitterionic. And so you have this sort of hydrophobic glassy matrix with salt channels in it, and those salt channels because they are so hydrophilic, you could imagine.

If a water molecule and an oil molecule are both competing for surface interaction and you have the surface is all Zwitterionic it wants to grab onto the water, it wants to hold onto the water and stay fully hydrated, almost acting like a shield or a water barrier that keeps any of those organic compounds forever hitting the surface, sticking to it, and staying there long enough to form that clogging behavior.

Key Benefit: It creates a Membrane that never clogs!

So when we clean our membranes, because what you’re doing is basically shearing off any stuff that gets stuck to the surface or conglomerates in that first place where the wastewater meets the active layer. What we get is 30 minute freshwater rinse or very mild bleaching caustic, and you’ll fully regenerate the membrane back to its starting performance cycle after cycle.

Whether you throw tens of thousands of parts per million oil in grease, whether you have protein, whether you have anti foam agents or silicones, surfactants, we have seen. And amazing about ability for the membrane to regenerate and continue operating even in some of the streams that you know, a classical membrane would say it’s gonna be dead in hours.

And that’s all because of how well those Zwitterionic channels allow you to keep unimpeded pores, unclogged matrix of the active

Are Zwitterions and Fourth Phase of Water linked?

Antoine Walter: The last time on that microphone that I spoke with someone addressing gels, hydrophilic, hydrophobic, that was with Gerald Pollack, and we discussed his set of research about the fourth phase of water and beyond, and I have to wipe that out of my mind. Is it the same topic we’re discussing here?

Is it an adjacent topic or does it have really no link?

Alex Rappaport: I am afraid I’m not close enough, to that material to be able to comment. I will say there’s a lot of work that’s been done on hydrophilic materials and that behavior of hydrophilicity as a property that can help with things like fouling resistance or that can help allow you to lubricate certain operating environments.

That’s a well understood behavior or phenomenon. Seeing it actually in a sort of robust, commercially available product I think there’s a lot of other sort of examples that you can point to. If you look at some of the quantitative metrics that you’d use to determine surface wettability our membrane is well, well above any other competitive product in terms of that behavior showing up.

ZwitterCo directly thought of leveraging Zwitterions to build a Wastewater Membrane

Antoine Walter: So you had this base material, so this Zwitterionic Co-Polymer, which you put together, the hydrophylic, the hydrophobic together. When did you decide that has to be a membrane and when did you pick the application field for that discovery?

Alex Rappaport: the first fundamental invention was on the basis of trying to produce a membrane. And particularly a membrane that was going to solve, the achilles heel of filtration, fouling, clogging. So when I was first introduced to the research, there had been lab scale membrane coupons that had been developed.

That had been run on some high strength wastewaters or some fouling prone feeds, and there was evidence that the cleaning behavior, the ability to recover was vastly different. So the use of this material as a thin film layer was sort of understood and there was some evidence of its value as I came into the picture.

As we thought about driving that towards something that could be a product we had to, while maintaining the elegance of the hydrophilicity and the self-assembly. We had to figure out how to re-engineer a lot of that to be something that could be turned into a product that could work on roll-to-roll web conversion that was going to hold up in the kinds of environments from a temperature and a solvent and various different kinds of constituents that you’ll see in industrial wastewaters.

The company rolled out rapid prototyping on real-world cases

So that was really the way we took the engineering forward from that initial. Lab scale prototype was towards the kinds of environments and use cases where it was gonna be able to have that value realized by end users. Which then, second part of your question we did a whole bunch of studies.

We took a whole bunch of samples from a whole bunch of really smelly, vibrant wastewaters from every industry for whom you see the common signs of. It’s a tough wastewater, so I’m hauling it away by tanker truck. It’s a tough wastewater, so I’m throwing it down the drain and paying surcharges. It’s a tough wastewater, so I’m not reusing anything in it, whether it’s the organics or the water. It’s just an operating cost to my facility.

We saw this in obviously the produced water space in meat, poultry, seafood, in agricultural waste, like digestate. You see it a lot in ethanol. You see it in a lot of bioprocesses.

So those markers of organics as the limiting feature of the water from doing something that looks more like reuse or looks like valorizing, that waste stream. Those were some of the first indicators that this membrane might be able to perform a separation that was gonna be valuable. But you only get that insight as you start interacting with those fluids firsthand.

ZwitterCo’s first investment was in building a Lab

So one of the earliest investments that we made was creating a laboratory environment where we could be taking in five gallons of wastewater from various sites at a time and running bench style studies that could give you, you know, you’re now removing this much BOD COD. You’re having a hundred percent removal of all suspended material and oil and grease.

You are able to unlock using something like reverse osmosis to get you down to potable quality or reuse quality water because you’ve removed all of the organic material that would’ve otherwise compromised that use of reverse osmosis.

So those kinds of exposures to the different waste environments helped us begin to characterize how the go-to-market model was going to evolve, because now you could understand status quo.

You could understand the operating costs, you could hear the level of urgency or pain from folks who had no other sense of what tools they could apply to these challenges. And it’s one thing if it’s just a cost center, but when folks are running out of water, when they’re in violation, when they are seeking to pioneer sustainability in their field, you see this…

I’ve never had to walk into a customer conversation and convince them that doing something more interesting with their water was a good idea. Those days are long gone. So helping just partner on now there are new tools and now there are new capabilities that we can bring into the idea of an integrated solution for you.

That conversation was often met with a lot of positivity and a lot of interest, even for folks who had never really seen membranes in action.

ZwitterCo re-created a Membrane category: SuperFiltration

Antoine Walter: I’ll come back to that customer experience, which by the way, it seems to me like whether you’ve been very lucky or really you’ve met the right people.

But still, I wouldn’t say it’s the norm, yet. It’s maybe becoming more, but not yet the norm. I’d also like to readdress your go to market, I think there’s one important step we missed, which is you explain how you have this co-polymer and how the Zwitterions themselves are the pores

But still those pores could be any sizes, and usually we find them from cartridge to reverse osmosis through microfiltration, ultrafiltration nano filtration you mentioned forward osmosis and you have a different concept, which is super filtration. So what’s that thing?

Alex Rappaport: certainly. I will say and my marketing people are probably gonna yell at me for saying this, we did not invent super filtration. We didn’t even come up with a term, so the first indication that from a communication exercise, we needed a different way to talk about this membrane is because it ended up being quite a mouthful to say, well, it’s like a tight, ultra filter.

It’s gonna give you low pressure operations. It’s gonna be really easy to clean. It’s gonna be very chemically tolerant. Also, it’s doing nanofiltration level organics removal. It’s not the desalinating, it’s not taking out divalent ion species. So you wouldn’t use it for an NF application, but it’s gonna give you better permanent quality than you expect from a UF

how’s that sound for a product?

At the intersection of NF and UF, “SF” brings clarity on the terminology

And that was the genesis of: can we give the industry a new language to think about why this separation profile is different? So it is roughly a thousand Dalton molecular weight cutoff or about a one nanometer pore size. Part of the way the membrane is manufactured gives you a really good distribution or homogeneity in the size of pores and where those pores line up on the active layer.

So we get a very precise ability to fractionate compounds. Larger than an nanometer? They really all come out. Smaller than an nanometer? They all really pass through. And it’s not doing the kind of desalination or, partial ionic separation that you’d expect from an NF level separation.

So, As we were thinking about where this separation class is relevant, you get a lot of interest in things like protein rejection, right?

Proteins that are in that low thousands of Dalton range. You can suddenly get very high yield, very high retention, even of protein fragments or peptides that are all valuable products that you might want out of a bioprocess or out of a dairy stream.

And when it comes to wastewater applications, you see UF, MBRs, these kinds of separations being sufficient in certain circumstances to pre-treat or to really help you get to those final tertiary polishing stages.

When Ultrafiltration reaches its limit, you need a better tool: that’s where SuperFiltration kicks in!

But there were also a handful of use cases where we were finding, loose or mid scale UF wasn’t enough. That enough dissolved organic material was passing through even a UF. And that was showing up as you’re cleaning your RO every day or every week, or you are gonna experience more severe chemical requirements in those cleanings.

So we think of super filtration at that very lowest possible edge of ultra filtrations or tight ultra filtration as what could produce the most ideal feed water for ro, what’s gonna get you full removal of fat soils and grease and suspended solids? What’s gonna get you really excellent protein yields and ash passage, but that’s not gonna have energy penalties that you get from NF or RO and it’s not gonna have the cleaning restrictions that you also typically have from polyamid chemistry.

You can really chlorinate our membrane, lots of, tolerance, to wide pH ranges, different acid-based combinations as well as oxidizing agents.

With which Water Technologies does ZwitterCo’s Zwitterionic solution compete?

Antoine Walter: So if I try now to put you in a box. Sorry about that. You, You mentioned how you are tolerant to organics obviously you don’t have this problem of irreversible fouling. Probably, that helps you with the opex over time, with the lifetime of your membrane. Still the water ecosystem exists for decades.

So whether you found really a niche which was unaddressed, and I’m very concerned about this industry because that means we were really polluting stuff for the pleasure of doing it, or you’re still living in someone’s space and eating up that space and replacing an existing technology. To me, you named one of the suspects to that, which might be the MBRs which you could, as you explain, have.

Probably better opex than an MBR and similar characteristic physically speaking. The other one might be dissolved air flottation. Is there any other one which you might be eating up, replacing, disrupting you decide what’s the best term

Alex Rappaport: Yeah, you could think of ceramic or inorganic membrane products as the other common tool that you point to for challenging waste streams that you could otherwise think of ZwitterCo as a tool for

Could polymeric membranes on Zwitterions limit ceramic membranes’ perspectives?

Antoine Walter: that’s a difficult one because, regularly ceramic membrane people on that microphone predicting how they would wipe out polymeric. So if now a polymeric player says that he can take on ceramics, then we’re in a circle.

Alex Rappaport: Well, how, you know, how many different companies over the years have said things like, performance of a ceramic at the cost profile of polymerics. I mean, this is an angel discussion that. There’s probably more nuance and gray area than anyone black and white answer.

I’ll give you an even more frustrating or, it depends. Style answer for this, which is, I have seen now too many examples in each different industry that we operate in where the thing you thought you were competing with over here is a complimentary tool to you over here that I truly feel there is such a vast blue ocean.

In the new realm of Water Scarcity and industrial wastewater reuse, there’s space for everyone

The need for new advanced treatment showing up in a lot of these applications where again, land application, direct discharge, municipal discharge. Hauling or some form of offsite disposal. These are all features of, I’d say a very large majority of where we think about industrial wastewater management today.

So the compilation of new tools that help provide you an integrated solution where you’re not just getting clean water, but you’re also creating feed stocks and fertilizers and other value added co-products. As you go through these different stages of processing, that introduction is gonna mean.

If I’m in dairy wastewater and I have a lot of lactose and other low molecular weight sugars, maybe a biological process as part of that treatment train makes sense to consume those easy to digest sugars.

If I’m in, you know, landfill leachate, maybe what you really want is just the easiest way to concentrate all of that leachate through a membrane based process before taking it to a thermal process so you have something semi-solid going back to landfill.

There will be use cases for technology combinations

If you are in anaerobic digestate out of manure or food waste, you may want something like a stainless steel microfiltration to take out fiber before you go to ZwitterCo or RO to do the nutrient capture and to get you down to clean water.

So it has shown us that the thoughtful integration of the right tool for the right job. I’ll put on my optimist hat, is gonna prove to us that there is not a zero sum game here. That it is not one tool will dominate over another.

Even air flotation, which I would say in a lot of the food wastewater applications, reducing the chemical payload on a DAF by having a membrane barrier afterwards that can take more heavy organic effluent from that DAF is one of the things that we’ve looked into. Or even eliminating the DAF entirely in some cases that makes sense.

… so it will be about engineering the right solution for the right challenges

In other cases we have some partners we work with who use chemical free DAF as a way to create a non-con contaminated byproduct that can be sent to rendering or that can be otherwise turned into some sort of fat or lipid feed stock to a biodiesel process.

And you actually want that DAF performing that function. And then the membrane takes all the effluent from there. And a DAF that might otherwise be perhaps a little less reliable in what kind of affluent quality it has, or that is not gonna be able to adapt as easily to changes in the industrial conditions at a plant.

Suddenly you’ve used a membrane to protect against that weakness of the DAF while using the DAF for what it’s good at, which is a very low cost way to extract a decent bulk of the solids and fat soils and grease that’s in that stream. So I know it’s there’s always like in front of investor slides, a competitive matrix.

Here’s all these other tools and here’s all the X’s on all of them. And ZwitterCo’s got all these green check marks, but as many an esteemed water scholar has said, it’s complex set of problems. And you really wanna have the right kind of open-mindedness to which tools help get you the overall process efficiency.

ZwitterCo’s elevator pitch to their Unique Selling Point

Antoine Walter: Don’t get me wrong, I’m a water guy, so I would fully support your answer, which is the right answer, but I’m still gonna push you in a corner if I’m meeting you in an elevator. So you really have just, and I’m not going very high with that elevator, so you really have like 10 seconds. And there is one clear advantage of your technology, which you do know is the reason why people come to you. What would it be?

Alex Rappaport: in five years we’ve never found a fluid that permanently foul the membrane. The diversity of organic heavy streams that we have been able to process and enable water reuse for the first time has shown up in so many applications.

Antoine Walter: Perfect!

Alex Rappaport: How many floors did we just go up in that elevator? Was That’s good.

Antoine Walter: I would stay a bit longer and maybe forget where I was going at first. So you win on that one.

You explain how your membrane brings that value. Now, when I spoke with several membranes company on that microphone over time, most of them started saying they wanted to build a membrane and then found out they had to build a module just because the membrane itself wouldn’t be integrated that way.

What’s your approach to that?

What’s ZwitterCo’s ideal delivery scope? “Just” Zwitterions Membranes or full modules?

Alex Rappaport: there’s a great quote, oh, I’m gonna blank on the author of this. We tossed this one around the company often. You can’t sadly dump a bunch of flat sheet membrane or even modules on the floor of an industrial plant, pour water over them and hope to get filtration. Unfortunately, that is just not the way these systems work.

So you really gotta think about your position in the value chain, right? This is: where we bring the most amount of expertise and competency and ability to continue pushing the boundaries on what performances is possible, certainly lives at the membrane level, but to deliver something that others can easily integrate and use, you need to give a module.

And so we’ve made choices. To go far enough into the value chain to make sure that the thing we’re gonna give someone looks and feels similar to the thing that they would’ve otherwise had to buy.

To remove customer friction, you need to deliver a new solution in a similar shape than the existing one

So you’re gonna make that friction of trying something new, as low as possible. In our go-to-market concept, you know, the follow on question from there is, so do you build the system?

How far do you go into system engineering? How far do you go into project delivery? And this is where you start being honest with yourself and with your organization and what you’re good at. There’s a lot of companies that are a lot better at project delivery than ZwitterCo could be. We don’t have that kind of, building block in our DNA to go build buildings and pour concrete and manage all of that project delivery process.

And meanwhile, we have a growing cohort of really close partnerships with just top tier. Very high caliber engineering firms who are able to bring some of those other complimentary unit operations that with ZwitterCo, often as a cornerstone of these processes, or that helps bolt on some really valuable new capability.

Empowering engineering firms with a new zwitterionic tool

They’re hungry for having a new tool in their toolkit that lets them provide greater value to their customers and to the water industry. So that’s a moment. Is there anyone providing what we feel is this differentiation in the quality of filtration that’s possible and how these tools can be built to do all sorts of new separations?

I think that’s a place where ZwitterCo shines. Is there an existing value chain for how. Wastewater treatment engineering projects get delivered. And are there a handful of very well acclaimed strong balance sheets, strong engineering teams, strong existing set of complimentary tools to bring to bear?

Absolutely. So we sort of stopped at the module and we said we can do a lot with membrane science, even a lot with module science and we are gonna make sure. When we work with a partner, when we work with an engineering company, we’re not just gonna hand them a module and a spec sheet and say, good luck.

Tell us when you’ve sold, a couple million dollars. We spend a lot of time thinking about all of the other ancillary services, documentation, know how tools, processes to help us integrate into the way they sell and the way they think about validating a new technological process.

Is ZwitterCo Integrator Agnostic?

Antoine Walter: So that would mean that you’re not integrator agnostic because you want to make sure that it’s integrated the right way. It’s not like just it’s on the market, just buy it.

Alex Rappaport: the current form factor of the super filtration that we sell today is a spiral wound element that in theory will fit into standard pressure vessels and that you would think of. A similar design concept to how you might put together like a dairy UF system, pie recirculation, you know, multiple stages, achieving very high concentration factors.

That’s a common and fairly generic design basis to start with.

But there’s so much more that goes into not just the delivery of a new solution, but even the mindset and the mentality around innovation and around risk sharing and around how you finance these projects. So while we love to and, are growing, the number of systems partners that we work with, we do think very carefully around.

As a Scale Up, ZwitterCo has to be conscious of its time to deliver the best value

The kind of investments we make. We are a small, young company and so we have a certain amount of bandwidth that we can support for partnership onboarding, and we wanna really make those partnerships successful. So we focus a lot of our attention on. Bringing leads to our partners, to bringing additional services to our partners, to making sure that if they’re going through a first engineering design, where ZwitterCo’s membranes are built in that we are there with them, sort of every step of the process to help fill in some of the gaps and how you think about best optimizing the system.

So it’s hard to say that we’re a integrator, agnostic or not. It’s sort of the relationships and the capabilities that we’ve seen from some of our top partners right now are just a wonderful collaboration and sort of common mentality, common shared purpose around the needs of the industry are changing so fast.

There’s so many opportunities. Let’s really enjoy the sensation of feeling like all of our work collectively matters and that our teams are dedicated to this mission. And that’s a point of synchrony between our various organizations. That framework, that mindset to go about these projects is often one of the best indicators of partnership success.

The intended Go-To Market route defines ZwitterCo’s agnosticism

Antoine Walter: Maybe agnostic isn’t the right way to define it. I’m thinking, you know, of. You could go to, let’s take an example of municipal tender, which I do know is not exactly where you’re fitting into. But if you go into a municipal tender, you can convince the end user that he needs your membrane module, and then he’s gonna make a tender in which it’s written that whoever can take the tender, but the modules have to come from ZwitterCo.

So that would be one way to be fully agnostic because. At the end of the day, you don’t care which EPC gets the job. You would be part of it. The other extreme of that would be you do, like, Royal HaskoningDHV does with Nereda, which is to have some licenses, which they would then hand out to one particular EPC, and then that EPC is the only one in the country allowed to leverage the technology, which is, I would say that the highest level of partnership you can have.

If I understand you’re somewhat in between in the sense that really anybody could pick it up because the form factor is really agnostic. But then when it comes to taking and extracting the most out of the technology, you have a certain bandwidth and you cannot train everybody at the same time. So you’re going step by step, educating the market.

The company aims to partner with integrators, but not fully up to the license model

Alex Rappaport: Yeah that’s a really good summary. We’re probably not in the middle. We’re probably further towards that really close partner Almost a license model. I understand that. The analogy there just because also the partners that we’ve worked with who have invested their own time, their own resources into developing these applications we wanna protect, you know, the way that they have invested their time and channel development.

And we wanna make sure that they’re the group, that we really work on go. So it helps them also appreciate, regardless of the structure of the agreement that we’re really bought in on them and their success. And you just don’t quite have that same relationship with your key partners when you are anyone, you know, we, we sell anything to anyone and you’re all just gonna compete together.

I would also argue that’s kind of the history of how commoditization in the membrane industry has happened, is you just, you lose touch with. A value strategy or value pricing analysis, both because of your disconnect with the end use application, the way that you organize your partnerships. It’s everyone wins and value can be maintained when you’re really thoughtful with your channel strategy.

What will ZwitterCo spend its $33 million Series A on?

Antoine Walter: You mentioned how these partners invest in you, which makes me like a weird bridge, but I’m taking it still. We just closed the series A, which is the largest ever in the water sector.

Alex Rappaport: Yeah.

Antoine Walter: you mentioned how you have a limited bandwidth today, given the size of the company, I guess that’s history. Now you just raised 33 million dollars.

So what does that change?

Alex Rappaport: one of the really exciting announcements we’ll be able to make very soon, so I’m gonna give you a little sneak peek here.

Building a new production complex to fast track Zwitterions adoption into the wastewater world and beyond

And part of what was the primary use of funds from this round is that ZwitterCo has and will be operational very shortly. A 30,000 square foot production complex here in Massachusetts, what we refer to as our innovation center, the Technology Innovation Center.

And the purpose of this facility and all the capabilities inside is a co-location of all of our offices, all of our laboratories, and also a significant space for prototyping and product scale up.

So we have one main commercial product we’re selling today, which is our super filtration membrane. That’s not all that this chemistry can do. That’s certainly not all of the kinds of tools and products that we’ll offer. We will offer products that look more analogous to what you might classically think of for ultra filtration, nanofiltration, RO, et cetera.

And the speed of product development is all about owning your manufacturing process, owning that scale up, learning how each different piece of equipment has to be operated, at what tolerance is under what quality paradigms, and that we can do that iteration and maintain that learning and do so as fast as possible.

Bringing all the steps in the production chain under the same roof

So our goal with this facility is to actually have production capability from the polymer to the membrane, to the elements, to the quality testing.

So that we can go through those learning cycles in under a month.

A new polymer formulation comes out of the lab and is immediately turned into coding fluid and is immediately turned into membrane, is immediately turned into elements that we’re testing and that speed and that ability to continue pushing the boundaries of what the chemistry’s capable of.

Now, with a lot of the incoming feedback from partnerships and from, the adoption in the marketplace and seeing how the membranes are performing, Is helping us move on a couple different product enhancements rapidly.

And that’s part of the promise of what our company is trying to be the source for continuing innovation in breakthrough filtration and continuing to give more and more tools to solve more and more challenges in water.

… then beefing up the sales arm to share the word about the perks of zwitterions applied to the Water Industry

So as we think about use of proceeds, one of the major features was building this center and all sort of capital and operating costs that go around with that. And then of course, Building out some of the other elements of our commercialization, whether it’s sales and marketing teams our pilot fleet all the other things that help us put our tools in front of as many end users or as many partners as it makes sense to do so.

So, It is, I’d say a really exciting stage of growth for us. You raise a round like this. It definitely builds a lot of expectation. But the goal is to not just show the immediate. Value created from current products and to show that we can enable water reuse and show that we can provide a practical, economically viable means to address challenges in a number of industries, but also to show that as a company, we are building the engine internally, the habits, the framework, the processes that allows to continue that kind of innovation in the years and decades to come.

And that’s what is sort of underneath all of what we’re trying to do at ZwitterCo.

Will there be more products in the ZwitterCo range?

Antoine Walter: You mentioned the decades to come, you’ve said product enhancement before. Does that mean that you will enhance the existing product or will you build a complete product range?

Alex Rappaport: Stay tuned for some announcements later with Year Antoine.

Antoine Walter: I take it you mentioned the pilot fleet and the sales and marketing. What’s your go-to market with that regards? You have to start with a pilot every time. Or can you also just do a lab analysis and say it’s gonna work and then own your words and come with some process guarantees?

Alex Rappaport: we actually are pretty involved with our partners and in project delivery on how we think about different risk sharing models. So we definitely will stand behind the val resistance, the chemical tolerance the permeate quality we can produce.

Finding the right place for piloting within ZwitterCo’s growth strategy

But, you know, piloting serves a number of different values and virtues, and I know many a water startups have struggled with the just length and frequency of pilots required. There’s think there’s been more than one book written on like death by pilot in this space.

One of the things that we are seeing is that repeat installations in the same kind of industry or application, especially if we have a strong partner who is the one sort of leading the charge in how we go from our, fifth digestate project to our 50th.

 The cost of sales the timeline, the amount of unknown and uncertainty around how the process is really gonna shape out given different site constraints or different nuances of the project, that diminishes pretty quickly over time. So there’s a decent amount of upfront investment and we want to make sure we can always walk into a new opportunity or a new partnership discussion and be able to bring all the knowledge and capability of our team around our systems and unit operations, which is why we maintain our own pilot fleet.

… and only piloting under the right set of parameters for potential follow-up success

But a lot of times pilots are collaborative where we’ll bring the SF system, someone else is bringing the RO or the evaporator or the coarse filtration, and we will make sure that we have a joint understanding.

What assumptions have to be true for the economics and the performance to make sense. And we’re validating that on testing both for everyone’s benefit, right? We’re now gonna walk into a risk sharing agreement. And there, this is the first time we’ve ever seen Zwitterionic membranes. It’s a big ask and so we wanna know that they’ve seen the data as well to think about how they’re going to inspect that into their projects.

 I don’t think this is a unique answer. I think this is probably true in a lot of the new technology adoption processes. There’s more upfront learning and risk sharing and demonstration that’s required. But I think we are already seeing in some of our more mature applications, turning the corner on pilots as a investigation or exploration as opposed to pilots as just a point of final validation.

What’s ZwitterCo’s valuation?

Antoine Walter: On the business. Of things. When you raise 33 million dollars, where does that put you in terms of valuation? 150, 180. You cannot disclose?

Alex Rappaport: It puts me somewhere on a beach right off the coast of Bermuda. Very nice drinks. Yeah.

Antoine Walter: You, you people listening to that won’t know that. You’re not joking that you’re on the beach. I see it on the camera but yeah it’s obviously a fake office.

Alex Rappaport: Yeah, I mean, valuation’s really not what we focus on or think about, in these kind of contexts. It is the credibility that comes from these kinds of announcements and the kind of stakeholders that are supporting us. It’s the ability to have the resources to go solve our sorts of new problems and really accelerate, Sort of pedal to the floor on product development.

That’s the value of a round like this is you both catapult forward in how others are aware of what you can offer and you’re able to really bring the kind of firepower and capability you need into these tough projects.

Could ZwitterCo become the Water Sector’s first unicorn?

Antoine Walter: The reason why I’m asking is that you are an award-winning entrepreneur. You are Forbes 30 and 30. You’ve just led the biggest founding round for a Series A in the water industry. There’s one achievement nobody ever did in that water industry. It’s to build a unicorn. Never happened. I don’t know if that matters honestly, but still never happened.

So is that a path you might be setting yourself on?

Alex Rappaport: You know what would be really cool, and genuinely, I’m not just trying to give a, a flip into answer here, but truly what would be so, so motivating to us and to the team is to be able to do three things. one, To be able to prove water as an investible thesis, right? To be able to start having a different outcome.

When new water entrepreneurs are trying to put the logo salad on their slides in front of investors, of all the different outcomes that led to great investor returns, I would love for this to become a beacon or a lighthouse that helps bring more dollars into this space. Bring more hungry young minds into this space.

… this would actually be the wrong metric to measure Alex’s success

Two I would like to make sure. Those who have invested so dearly into ZwitterCo, into me personally, from a mentorship, from an advisory, from a networking perspective, not just the investment of dollars, but there has been such a collection of experienced veteran serial entrepreneurs who have helped me on so many different chapters of this journey.

I would love to see. Us be able to help provide the returns. That helped be the baseline for why there was so much effort invested into ZwitterCo in the first place. And then probably most importantly is I would like this to reach a scale where we’re not just talking about a story.

We’re not just talking about the idea that one day industries are gonna be off the water grid, that they’re gonna have their own independent, resilient supply of water that you know will be safe even in the face of water scarcity and climate change. That, you know, we’re actually seeing impact recognized on a scale where it shows up on NASA satellites and where it features in water policy.

You achieve those things and I, could not care less whether it’s labeled at unit unicorn at the end of the day.

One potential path: emulating Andrew Benedek

Antoine Walter: You mentioned jokingly, the beach. Now I have to crack the secret. You’re not really on the beach. I had on that microphone Andrew Benedek a while ago, and he explained with different timeframes than yours cuz it was a different era. So he had to walk in the desert for much longer I think. But he really built up Zenon from nobody believes in Membranes to the point where MBRs were in the middle of the market.

And he sold off Zenon to, GE. And he went to the beach for six months and then he got tired of being on the beach and found being retired and he came back and the rest is history because now he’s leading Anaergia and to the same level of size that, and he is over 70. So I guess when you’re made of that bread, of that wood or whatever you’re made of usually there’s a stronger driver than just ego or numbers.

So I, I like your three cardinal directions right now. How many people are working at ZwitterCo today?

Alex Rappaport: How many employees do we have? 54.

What’s on the horizon for ZwitterCo in the next five years?

Antoine Walter: How many do you think you will be in five years?

Alex Rappaport: Well, there’s a lot of fun decisions that are gonna help, you know, baseline that answer as we grow level of international expansion level of additional product capabilities that we think about in our insourcing and outsourcing strategy.

You’re probably measuring well into the hundreds at this point, but, Again, it’s all about the destiny of what the technology can do and what the industry needs.

I think we are certainly attentive to. We want to continue growing in a way that is really collaborative with the industry. So some of the things that can really drive headcount up are when you are starting to build service depots around the world and engineering offices, and you’re doing more of that project management or program management, and I think.

You know, in certain applications or certain industries, maybe there will be more of that you see at ZwitterCo. But you know, where we are at the heart of new technology development and the facilities that we required to do so, I think is really harmonious with the way that a lot of the rest of the industry exists to tell then take that technology and apply it all over the world in different applications.

What will tell Alex that he’s succeeded by 2028?

Antoine Walter: So let me hand you over my crystal ball. So you’re in 2028. You have a, town hall meeting with those hundreds of people now working for ZwitterCo and you have a PowerPoint, hopefully not a PowerPoint, you have

Alex Rappaport: We’re all in. We’re all in VR at this point.

Antoine Walter: Yeah. And you’re just sharing the good news with your team of what you’ve achieved and how you’ve had an impact.

What is on the first slide of that VR or hologram?

Alex Rappaport: There’s certainly a counter of just millions of gallons a day reused. There’s a counter of number of other sustainable initiatives. That have been accelerated because of the availability of the tools you provide. Things like plant-based proteins, renewable, natural gas, green chemicals, all of these other spaces that need their water best managed in order to help them reach the heights that they’re trying to reach.

The impact goes far beyond just financial metrics

There would be something about the kinds of new fertilizers, new feed stocks, new products, the amount of value created that would’ve otherwise just been waste lost. And there would probably be some way to, you know, we’re talking 2028. Let’s get really ambitious here. I’d like to be able to relate this back to percentage of overall aquifer no longer lost because of the amount of industrial adoption of.

of reuse tools and of the kinds of interconnected systems that help us better manage and predict how climate patterns and weather patterns are gonna induce scarcity in different places. And so there’s more and more incentive for folks to think about trimming or constraining their water consumption to best manage on a watershed level or on a regional level, what’s going on.

Antoine Walter: Well, that’s the future I’d like to see. So I wish you all the best on that route. I think you are well prepared to to take it on. Thank you. Thanks a lot for the openness and the discussion, and everything you shared in that deep dive. To round it off, I propose you to switch to the last section, which is the rapid fire questions.

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Rapid fire questions:

Antoine Walter: So in that last section, I try to keep the questions short and your duties is to keep the answers short as well. My first one is, what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on and why?

Alex Rappaport: We have a poultry reuse project that is getting not just as terrific partner into the mix, bringing what we believe will be the most coste effective model to get you all the way to slaughterhouse reuse that has ever been seen in this industry. But we’re also bringing into that project a lot of support and investment from the regulators that’ll be involved in the permitting process.

And we are. Not just the enthusiasm from the customer and from the partner and from our team, but we’re seeing the regulators also saying, this is exactly what we need people working on and this is the direction we need to take our reuse initiatives.

Antoine Walter: Can you name one thing that you’ve learned The hard way?

Alex Rappaport: Only one. I come back to that point on value chain. It’s really important early in venture development to have some hypothesis about who you’re trying to be when you grow up. I’ll admit there are, you know, in, in several prior chapters times that we try to do more of the complete solution development or integration ourselves and knowing how tough it can be to solve process challenges in wastewater. It has been really fruitful to find the kind of mind sharing collaboration with partners who have the other half of that equation. That doesn’t necessarily make sense for us as a component supplier, in value chain.

Antoine Walter: Is there something you’re doing today that you will not be doing in 10

Alex Rappaport: I’m sure most of what I’m doing today, I won’t be doing it 10 years, and that’s just a truth of the constant. Deconstruction and reconstruction of your role as a company goes through different chapters. Obviously I will always have a, a strong hand and love and care about. People and our culture and how we operate as a company.

I’ll always have my investor facing and financing partner relationships. I will always have the strategic leadership of company direction and of the executive team. Hopefully I’ll be on more and more of these podcasts as the the spokesperson to the world. But I mean, we are already seeing different levels of middle management show up or thinking about different dynamics.

Interdepartmental processes and as we grow and as sort of the foundation comes up from beneath us, I will by necessity be less and less involved in some of those ground floor operations.

Antoine Walter: Aside from Zwitterionic membranes, what’s the trend to watch out for in the water sector?

Alex Rappaport: I mentioned it just a moment ago, the idea of this watershed level management I’m, I have a lot of inspiration from folks that are working on things like a third party marketplace for water. How do you value, how do you audit? The trail of a single drop of water so that as we start working on city level planning or regional level planning, we could think about the instrumentation, the modeling, the financial marketplace and incentive structures needed to help us work together on this challenge of water management.

I think there’s a lot of work happening in marketplace design. I know there’s good and bad in the way that carbon credits have been implemented, but you could sort of imagine similar concept and that’s gonna be necessary to make sure that there are drivers in place to get people to financially motivated to take some of these decisions.

And to think about different, pros and cons on water conservation.

Antoine Walter: last one, would you have someone to recommend me that I should definitely invite as soon as possible on that microphone.

Alex Rappaport: I was looking through the list of past participants and I was curious, have you guys met with Tom Ferguson from Burnt Island Ventures?

Antoine Walter: He promised that I could catch him at the next Blue Tech Forum.

Alex Rappaport: Oh, you have to. You have to.

Antoine Walter: promised that the last BlueTech forum that I would be able to catch him, but he’s the MC, so he’s very busy. But this time it’s on both our agendas.

Alex Rappaport: If you think I talk fast, track the words per minute that comes outta Tom Ferguson really impressive. I mean, Tom’s just he’s a lightning rod in this industry. He’s so well connected and has so much to bring. I’d also recommend when the time is right. The financing partners at DC VC who held ZwitterCo you know, achieved what we’ve achieved, have a really thoughtful thesis about the role they can play in helping to shape the future of the water industry.

And they’ve published quite a bit on the journey that they’re taking. And I’d be more than happy to make that connection if you wanna talk to, a slightly different player in this space.

Antoine Walter: That would be fascinating. So if you have a recommendation, I’ll follow that. So thanks a lot again I mean it it was great to have that conversation with you. You mentioned how you might be doing more of those podcasts in the future as an advocacy level or as a water voice. Well, that microphone is open whenever you want to come back, so I’d be happy to document the next stages of your journey.

Alex Rappaport: Excellent. I appreciate that.

Antoine Walter: So thanks a lot and talk to you soon.

Alex Rappaport: Terrific. All right. Take care. Have a good one. Cheers everyone.

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