Catching up with 2017 Imagine Chemistry winners: uFraction8
Catching up with 2017 Imagine Chemistry winners: uFraction8
Through Imagine Chemistry, AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals invites startups and researchers to work with us to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the chemicals industry today. During the 2017 edition, we invited 20 teams from over 200 submissions to the finals, ultimately selecting 10 winners to receive additional support from us and our partners to turn their ideas into reality. Here we catch up with uFraction8, one of last year’s winners.
“Our technology should have significant sustainability benefits, so we were looking for companies that shared our vision. We know that AkzoNobel ranks very highly in global sustainability rankings, so they ended up very much at the top of the pile.” - Brian Miller, uFraction8
uFraction8 is a privately held, Scotland-based startup focused on sustainable solutions for bioreactor downstream processing. Bioreactors are highly promising because they offer increased yields and flexibility compared to traditional techniques, but costs present a major hurdle. Post bioreactor dewatering in particular is pricey and can make up anywhere from 30-80% of all costs in a bioproduction facility. uFraction8's microfluidic technology reduces dewatering costs by up to 75% compared to traditional methods, potentially offering significant benefits for a wide range of sectors such as food, pharmaceuticals, and fine chemicals.
uFraction8's technology enables the filtration, separation, and dewatering of solutions containing a wide array of microorganisms, such as micro algae and bacteria, while offering performance and cost benefits compared to mainstream liquid processing technologies like filtration, centrifugation, and flocculation. Thanks to its scalability and energy efficiency, their technology offers sustainability benefits as well. These sustainability benefits are what led them to believe they might have an interesting solution for last year’s Imagine Chemistry challenge area “Sustainable alternatives to our current technologies.”
As a winner of Imagine Chemistry, uFraction8 was offered a long-term agreement by AkzoNobel to provide expertise and support further development of their technology. They have spent the last few months actively working with AkzoNobel researchers to test their equipment, learning a lot in the process. As it turns out, enthusiastic and energetic collaboration are the norm for uFraction8 co-founders Brian Miller and Monika Tomecka.
The two met through a business accelerator program called Deep Science Ventures. During his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, Brian discovered a novel filtration technology which he then developed further during a Royal Society of Edinburgh enterprise fellowship. He joined Deep Science Ventures as he neared the end of his fellowship after realizing he needed funding to keep his technology alive. “My supervisor was in a comfortable academic position, busy all the time managing lots of other people and lots of other projects, and this was sort of my baby. There was no one else. If I did anything BUT this, it would die, essentially.”
Meanwhile, Monika earned her PhD in biomedical science from the University of Sheffield working between the university and industry. During her PhD she helped out with a few friends’ startups and got hooked. “Working for a startup seemed like the sweet spot between academia and industry, where you could be very free and experimental but also learn a lot about business and everything else around it. That’s why I joined Deep Science Ventures. I had some ideas for biomedical startups which I was exploring when Brian and I met and then I kind of pivoted.”
She continues, “I’m a biologist and he’s an engineer. Initially it doesn’t sound like we have much in common. But the more we talked about it, the more we realized that the technology which he developed for water monitoring could actually very nicely fit into the whole biomanufacturing field. As a biologist I had a lot of insights into this market so we decided to work together. The longer we worked together the more we realized that it wasn’t just bio companies that might be interested, but also others such as chemical companies. That’s how we decided to join Imagine Chemistry.”
Brian adds, “Another thing that attracted us to Imagine Chemistry was the sustainability angle. Our technology should have significant sustainability benefits, so we were looking for companies that shared our vision. We know that AkzoNobel ranks very highly in global sustainability rankings, so they ended up very much at the top of the pile.”
Joining Imagine Chemistry turned out to be very educational. Monika says, “We met so many different specialists, it was amazing!” Brian adds, “Every facet of the company was represented and offered opinions and advice to really help us shape everything into what became a winning proposal.”
Ultimately participating offered them an even bigger learning experience: “AkzoNobel taught us how to talk to the big companies,” Monika explains. “What we are doing as part of the research agreement with AkzoNobel is starting with small tests, and if these are successful it will lead to bigger things. We realized that that might be a good way of talking to other big players.”
Even better, now they don’t always have to be the ones to start the conversation. Monika says, “Being in Imagine Chemistry and working with AkzoNobel has opened a lot of doors for us. Other companies are like, ‘Oh, if they recognize that your technology might be interesting, maybe we will look at it as well.’” Brian adds, “Companies are starting to come to us rather than us always trying to target and go to them.”
Imagine Chemistry 2018 is open for submissions from January 10th to March 10th, with the finals event taking place from May 29th to June 1st in Gothenburg, Sweden. If you think you have a solution that can help us make the chemicals industry more sustainable, we invite you to join our Challenge at https://challenge.imaginechemistry.com
For more information about uFraction8, visit ufraction8.com