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A step-change in membrane performance — ZwitterCo are revolutionizing the treatment of challenging wastewater streams

Alex Rappaport is the co-founder of ZwitterCo, a Cambridge-based startup using cutting-edge zwitterionic polymer chemistry to design wastewater-treatment membrane solutions. From winning the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center Water Catalyst Grant to being a top finalist at the MIT Innovation Challenge all before the age of 25, Rappaport and his team have achieved a lot in a short space of time. We sat down with the passionate entrepreneur (and accomplished public speaker) to talk about ZwitterCo, wastewater management, and his personal goals for 2019.

What problem do you solve for your customer?

ZwitterCo concentrates organic-heavy waste streams that have to be hauled away by tanker-truck for disposal, which is expensive and unsustainable. We take trucks off the road and create clean water that can be discharged or reused safely. It’s about simplifying and rationalizing an unnecessarily convoluted and expensive process.

What’s the biggest thing you have learned as a founder?

It’s tough to trust yourself, with all of the advice flying around, but we’ve got to the point as a team that we have been nose-up-to-the-glass on this product and problem that we’re finding that good things happen if we back ourselves, and we focus. If something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. Strip away the noise and solve the hard problems.

What are your priorities for 2019?

Commercial implementation — solving a major water challenge for our customer and translating all the hard work that my team has put forth into tangible value. We have proven that the performance of our membrane will generate a large amount of value in a short space of time across multiple industries. We’re making sure we nail the first customer deployment.

ZwitterCo’s nanofiltration membranes show groundbreaking resistance to organic fouling and can withstand harsh industrial conditions, enabling the reuse of wastewater from all kinds of industrial processes.

What is the single biggest obstacle to building your business?

There are a lot of functional, but imperfect wastewater management solutions out there and it’s rare to see uniformity across industries, applications, or sites. That means complexity in sales, deployment, product integration, nuances in water chemistry, availability of technology, availability of capital, etc. will all affect how a company gets the job done, so it’s our job to identify and pull together the common threads to provide the customer something that works seamlessly with their operations.

What would be your advice to entrepreneurs entering the water sector?

Prioritize low-cost, low-fidelity data collection from representative sources as early as possible. There is no such thing as time wasted when you’re figuring out where best to go first: understand the data around your market, your product, and the fit between them. The costs and energy of implementation will ramp quickly, so you want to have a solid, wide bed of facts supporting and grounding your strategy. The foundation is crucial.

Sum up your IH2O experience so far in 3 words.

Community, forward-thinking, heart.

Check out what Alex and the team are doing at ZwitterCo. You can contact Alex at arappaport@zwitterco.com.