Building custom membranes to tackle hazardous chemicals

We are hosting our weekly energy seminars again and we have asked all of our speakers to write a blog post on the same topic as their talk. Recently we hosted Henrik Hagemann and Gabi Santosa the co-founders of Customem, an Imperial spinout that grew out of synthetic biology competition at MIT in 2014. In that time they have been busy building custom membranes to tackle hazardous chemicals and Henrik has written us this post to give us some background information.

There are 300,000 hectares of land industrially polluted with micropollutants in UK and over 350,000 sites in Western EU. A major contributor is the disproportionately polluting effect of just 0.04% of micropollutants including complex heavy metals found in industrial wastewater across industries.

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These micropollutants have severe downstream effects as they impact the environment, put food and business supply chains at risk and pose severe human health threats. The human health impacts can be detected within countries with established water treatment, like the US where unborn babies were found to having 287 detectable industrially related hazardous chemicals in their blood. The micropollutants make up of a significant proportion of the global problem of lack of sufficient water supply, predicted to affect 47% of the world’s population by 2030.

Unfortunately, existing water treatment procedures for the toxic 0.04% of micropollutants either require a large amount of energy making the operation unable to fulfil sustainability targets regarding energy consumption, or hazardous chemicals which can unpredictably create toxic by-products. Due to these limitations, existing technology do not filter out 0.04% of micropollutants to sufficient levels.

Gabi Santosa (an Althea Imperial 2016 award winner) and the rest of our team at CustoMem are developing a nanocellulose membrane that is bio-engineered to capture specific pollutants that cannot currently be removed. By using engineered biology as a cell factory to produce their material, we can introduce selectivity to their membranes without increasing the cost of production. This shift to biofabrication opens up the field of micropollutant capture in wastewater to selective materials, with the unique selling point of added functionality without exponentially increasing the production cost. Its production is 10x cheaper, requires 1,000x less energy than carbon nanomembrane production, and requires no hazardous chemicals. In the long term, we can incorporate the ability to recycle captured pollutants to high value nanoparticles, enabling the circular economy.

We aim to supply industrial manufacturers who are facing regulatory pressures, providing a cheap, sustainable way to eliminate contamination from their supply chains. As a for impact, for profit organisation, we are enabling governance of the environment without adding cost burden to tax payers. This is key to our team, as our long term vision is harnessing nature’s capacity to make biomaterials to improve sustainability and human health as a way to address the sustainable development goals. We have a written agreement to run UK based pilot trials with a commercial partner.

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Gabi and I are proud of our time at Imperial and, to brag just a little, have won 12 science and engineering awards, and built the team by bringing on Richard Philpott as a chairman. Richard had already been an integral part of a membrane startup called Whatman as R&D director, which was sold to GE Healthcare for $0.7bn. CustoMem’s current team includes PhD and MBA experience in synthetic biology, chemical engineering & finance from Cambridge, UC Berkeley, Imperial College and London Business School. We are fortunate to be affiliated with the RAEng, SynbiCITE and the UK IP Office. Our advisory board includes a former Severn Trent Water R&D director, world class academics, a commercialisation manager from BP and a serial biotech entrepreneur.

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