As regulations and standards for water quality become more stringent across the country, cities are looking for new options to treat water more efficiently, sustainably, and cost-effectively than ever before. An Iowa-based startup is stepping up with an innovative solution that uses algae to remove pollutants from wastewater, then transforms the resulting biomass into a slow-release fertilizer.
Gross-Wen Technologies was founded in 2014 to commercialize the technology that was developed by Iowa State University graduate student Martin Gross and his major professor, Dr. Zhiyou Wen. Their technology is known as the revolving algal biofilm system (RAB), and is drawing interest from cities across the U.S.
“Our customers are cities who are needing to upgrade water treatment systems to comply with changing quality standards,” said Gross, noting the company has worked with about 15 cities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois to date.
“In order to sell wastewater treatment systems like we are developing requires significant data to meet regulatory approvals and standards. Most of the projects we are working on now are pilot or demonstration projects designed to gather that data, develop models and standardize processes,” said Gross. “We have commercial projects selected and plan to install those in 2021.”
Another benefit to cities installing the algae-based system is the elimination of expense to dispose of the bacteria or chemicals used to treat water in current systems. In fact, Gross-Wen will purchase back the algal biomass from cities in order to convert that biomass into slow-release fertilizer pellets.
Investing in Iowa for growth
Gross-Wen Technologies has created 12 full-time jobs and 4 part-time jobs and opened their headquarters in Slater, Iowa, in late 2019. The company has secured $6.4 million through both grant, debt and equity financing. They are currently in a $5 million series A investment round. Martin Gross credits Iowa’s entrepreneurial resources and networks for helping move Gross-Wen from a lab-based technology to a successful startup company.
“As a native Iowan, I wanted to stay and build the business here,” said Gross. “Through all the activities and mentoring programs, I’ve been able to engage with a pretty impressive network of people that helped support our business, whether it is providing advice, make connections or help promote the business.”
Entrepreneurial resources for Iowa startups
Gross earned his undergraduate degree and PhD from Iowa State University, and also tapped into a number of entrepreneurial resources connected to the university.
“My background is in science and engineering; but I had never taken a business class,” he said. “The Ag Entrepreneurship Initiative, ISU Pappajohn Center, and ISU Startup Factory were great opportunities to train in areas needed to build, market and manage the business.
Gross-Wen Technologies was a member of the first ISU Startup Factory cohort, and also introduced Gross to a network of mentors. He noted that the company’s angel investor David Furbush was a mentor in the ISU Startup Factory program. The company is now part of the Ag Startup Engine, a private systematic program to fund AgTech entrepreneurs and help them towards success through mentorship and financial support.
After founding the company, Gross and Wen were awarded three USDA SBIR grants, which allowed them to further develop and validate the commercial use of their technology.
“The state of Iowa provides resources and support to write and win these grant opportunities, then provides matching grants,” said Gross. “The support and incentives available make it evident that Iowa wants new companies to locate and innovate here in the state.”
Published October 2020.