Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.
We develop customized membranes to capture and remove traces of heavy metal contaminants to tackle the challenge of wastewater treatment in the textile industry, the second most water-polluting industry. The membrane allows the heavy metal to be recovered and recycled, allowing for full circularity.
WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"
What if we could use chemical-free filtration systems to remove contaminants more effectively and solve the wastewater treatment issue of the second most polluting industry in the world - the apparel industry?
Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The textile industry accounts for 20% of industrial water pollution as chemicals are released into freshwater sources during the manufacturing process. Second only to agriculture, this level of pollution creates a risk to both environment and human health. Additionally, with the number of drought-prone areas projected to be half of the world’s population by 2030, polluted waters will pose a threat to human lives.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
CustoMem has developed a customised membrane that can capture and remove heavy metal contaminants, an important group of hazardous chemicals released during the apparel manufacturing process. As it uses synthetic biology, the production of the membranes is sustainable and does not require or release any hazardous chemicals. Importantly, the technology enables factories to recover this heavy metal, which means it could be recycled within the apparel supply chain or sold to precious metal traders. In both case, this could create a new revenue stream for the dye house and therefore represents a relatively low-cost solution to the problem. Finally, the membrane can be adapted to other contaminants from other industrial wastewater stream.
Technology developed as part of iGEM: 2nd out of 245 teams worldwide/Best Manufacturing Project/Best Part Collection/Human practices prize. Best Pitch at Imperial Mustard Seed event (2015). Selected Proof-of-Concept grant recipient by SynBiCite (July 2015
Impact: How does it Work
Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.
A large apparel brand outsources the manufacturing of clothes and footwear it sells to third parties, which have to comply with strict environmental conditions set by the brand. Currently, some hazardous chemicals might be filtered but they remain in a sludge which is often neither recycled nor entirely destroyed. Our solution requires the membrane to be installed in the dyeing plant to filter the water for traces of heavy metal contaminants. Thanks to the properties of the membrane, the heavy metal could then be recovered and sold back to chemical companies. Importantly, the process of producing the membranes is sustainable and does not require or produce any hazardous chemicals.
Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.
We have developed a working prototype for the following metals: platinum, lead, nickel, copper, chromium-6, cadmium. This prototype outperforms competitive membranes for capturing nickel, while other heavy metal ions still require testing. We have not yet had a chance to perform an industrial pilot and hence cannot assess precisely the impact this can have. From a theoretical perspective, carcinogenic heavy metals ions (chromium-6) are currently challenging to remove for dye houses and leather tanneries, which our technology could take care of. For other heavy metals, we can remove traces at a smaller level than the existing technology. Stopping the contamination of water sources will not only prevent ecosystem degradation but also prevent human diseases as these heavy metals have been shown to be carcinogenic and create irreversible damage to the kidney.
Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?
We first need to perform a pilot in a plant, which should ideally be UK-based as proximity allows for frequent optimisation. We would then install this technology for dye houses around the world, in partnership with either brands or dye-houses directly. We will try to partner with the ZDHC group (Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemical industry group) to support its members with our technology and solutions. Within 5 to 10 years, the idea will expand to other sectors where water treatment is also an issue (mining, water utility, etc.) in order to maximize the impact from our platform technology.
Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?
In order to ensure financial sustainability, we will sell the membrane but also the services associated with customizing it for the targeted contaminants, installing it, training the dye-house staff to use it, and replacing it when necessary. A significant portion of our costs is fixed (with R&D currently being the most important one), so financial sustainability will come with economies of scale.
Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?
Retailers are attempting to tackle this problem from different angles: in addition to filtering more effectively the chemicals, they are working with chemical providers to introduce fewer chemicals in the manufacturing process. They are also looking at ways to use less water, for example by switching away from cotton, which is one of the most water-intensive fabrics, or streamlining the dyeing process efficiency. However, they have to date no effective way to entirely remove or recycle some of the heavy metal contaminants produced in an energy efficient and sustainable manner.
Henrik and Gabi developed the platform technology as part of the Imperial College 2014 iGEM team to make a real world impact using synthetic biology. They developed their enthusiasm and passion for the project before and during the competition. Subsequently, they realized they wanted the technology to make tangible change and so continued the project. They were encouraged to participate in a business development programme, VCC, hosted by Imperial Innovations where they were selected as one of 12 teams out of 300 applicants. They had generous advice and developed their business model canvas to support their technology.
Henrik and Gabi are full-time members. Henrik has an MEng in Biomedical Engineering and Gabi a BSc Biochemistry, both from Imperial College. Dominique joined the team later on a part-time basis. She has an MSc Finance from LSE and is currently doing an MBA at LBS. In future, we will convert current part-time engineers and scientists to full-time members to effectively scale & grow to other industries. Our advisory board includes senior professors, a membrane commercialization specialist and an experienced VC.
Value Chain: Where does your work fit into the apparel value chain? [check all that apply]
Your Role: What is your relationship to the apparel industry? [check all that apply]
Target Population: What stakeholder groups do you engage or empower in your work? [check all that apply]
Auditors, Brands, Consumers, Corporations, Factory Workers, Factory Owners, Policymakers, Women.
Lever for Change: Select up to 3 ways your work is helping to transform the industry.
Advocacy, Standards, Technology.
Is your project targeted at solving any of the following key barriers?
Hidden from View: Conditions in Forests, Farms, and Factories are Only Visible to a Select Few, Sustainability is Not Yet in the DNA: Fast Fashion’s Current Model Disincentivizes Value-Driven Economies.
Does your project utilize any of the innovative design principles below?
Disrupt Business as Usual: Target Key Players Who Can Influence the Bottom Line.
Innovation Inspiration: When you first conceived of your project, did you think of it as applicable to the apparel industry?
If you answered "no" to the previous question, which industry was your project originally aimed at transforming?
● Replicating in the Apparel Industry: If your project didn't initially target the apparel industry, how are you specifically tailoring it to do so now?
The membrane can easily be used for different applications, it is only a matter of targeting the right contaminant
Are you nurturing or inspiring others to be changemakers? If so, how?
We are all leading by example as we are actively involved in social impact (e.g. creation of a synthetic biology network)
● Tell us about the partnerships that enhance your approach. How have you collaborated with others in the industry to increase your impact?
We have talked with a number of players, in particular those in the ZDHC group, to fully understand the challenge they face.