Startup sees gold in industrial waste

Portrait of Greg Newbloom next to a machine.

Membrion’s innovative filtration could slash energy use, costs in electronics manufacturing

What Greg Newbloom, B.S. chemical engineering ’09, likes best about his job is “that moment when a client moves from skepticism to belief.”

It all starts when a business reaches out to his Seattle-based company, Membrion Inc., with a complex wastewater treatment problem. They want to believe that the startup’s ion-exchange membrane will be the key to streamlining their system, but their optimism is kept in check by doubts concerning its real-world performance.

Then they try using it, and everything changes. Newbloom understands this progression perfectly.

“We’re providing an option for something that didn’t exist before, so it is a little bit like we’re putting on a magic show,” he said.

Newbloom didn’t set out to perform this particular kind of engineered magic. While earning a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Washington, he developed an ion-exchange technology for use in batteries. It worked well. But a few years after founding Membrion in 2016, Newbloom saw an opportunity to switch lanes and address an issue with critical impact: industrial wastewater treatment.

Membrion’s biggest customers include 13 U.S.-based Fortune 100 companies in the microelectronics, automotive, food and beverage, and oil and gas sectors. All have one thing in common: They are large enterprises that consume huge amounts of water in their operations.

“The average cellphone requires 300 gallons of water to produce the electronics inside it,” Newbloom said.

This problem of wastewater is not limited to cell phones. Many industrial production processes infuse water with harsh chemicals. Membrion focuses on helping its customers recover water from especially extreme environments, where industrial waste might result in chemical burns if touched or leave behind a sticky film that can foul sensitive (and very expensive) equipment.

Traditional treatment processes require high investments — not only of capital, but also of time, knowledge, and energy — to recover usable water from such sources.

“It’s very common for facilities just to say ‘This is really hard to deal with,’” Newbloom said. “They usually decide, ‘We’d rather just pay someone a few dollars per gallon to ship it somewhere else.’”

Membrion changed the industrial wastewater game by introducing its ceramic ion-exchange membrane, CeramIX. Compared with polymer membranes, a ceramic membrane can handle a wider pH range, making it adaptable to more extreme conditions The membrane also simplifies typical treatment processes, and conserves time, by replacing three or four steps with just one. Most importantly, Membrion’s technology reduces, and will eventually eliminate, the need to truck wastewater to specialized facilities. Treating wastewater where it’s produced not only saves money, but it also slashes energy costs.

The result is a more sustainable system.

The revolutionary promise of Membrion’s technology has led to recognition for the startup and its CEO. The company has raised $23 million so far. Newbloom was honored as one of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ “35 under 35” in 2020, and he was inducted into the College of Engineering’s Council of Outstanding Early Career Engineers in 2021.

Despite these individual accolades, when Newbloom talks about his success, he emphasizes the relationships that undergird his work. Take, for example, the story he tells about his friendship with Mike Knapp. The two met as first-year chemical engineering students. Because the cohort was small, there was ample opportunity for Newbloom and Knapp to bond over group projects and problem sets.

They lost touch after graduating. Then, about five years into Membrion’s existence, Knapp called up his old study buddy out of the blue. He’d been working as a senior facilities engineer for Samsung Austin Semiconductors and was following Newbloom’s work from afar. Knapp wanted to ask a question: Had Newbloom ever thought of treating heavy metal wastewater from semiconductor production?

In its early years, Membrion experimented with selling its technology as a groundwater desalination solution. Its offering was promising, but the field was crowded. By the time he talked with Knapp, Newbloom had already begun exploring a pivot to industrial wastewater treatment, but he hadn’t yet zeroed in on metal wastewater. After talking with his old friend, everything clicked into place.

“He was able to make the connection between our technology and that problem faster than I could,” Newbloom said.

Two and a half years later, the majority of Membrion’s annual product and service revenue now comes from supporting industries dealing with metal-laden wastewater, including semiconductor manufacturing.

Looking back on his time in the College of Engineering, Newbloom says this unexpected connection was in keeping with the larger ethos of his program.

“There’s something about it that’s really unique, in the way that relationships are prioritized. It doesn’t feel like a transactional experience. For me, it was a really transformative experience that has paid dividends which will continue, moving forward.”

These days, Newbloom applies a collaborative approach to the most challenging aspects of his job as a CEO. Pivoting to a new direction, for example, can be stressful when many people rely on the outcome of a decision. In such situations, he falls back on his training as an engineer — staying open to radically rethinking his premises and working to leverage each team member’s unique strengths.

For engineers-in-training with entrepreneurial aspirations, Newbloom’s advice is simple: Take risks. If the goal is running a startup, Newbloom recommends trying to work for one early on. Even though the learning process may feel like “drinking from a firehose,” he counsels, the potential for growth is worth it.

Newbloom’s story also illustrates the value of investing in community. You never know if that study buddy might call up someday and ask a question that changes everything.

“Everyone,” Newbloom said, “needs a Mike Knapp.”

Photo By: Matt Hagen

Dec. 22, 2023