Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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No does not mean no, just not now

Novamem build smart tap water filters easy to use and can filter germs, microplastics, pesticide and more from tap water.

Please introduce yourself and the Startup Novamem to our readers!

We are Christoph and Michael and together we are the co-founders of Novamem Ltd, a spin-off from the ETH Zurich. Back in 2013, we have developed a radically new way to produce porous plastic films. The highlight is that we can easily adjust the pore size and thus create consumer advantages in everyday products. Today, we mainly use our technology to build smart tap water filters under our brand DrinkPure HOME. They are easy to use and can filter germs, microplastics, pesticide and more from tap water. But there are also other fields of applications that we are currently investing. Read on and get a feeling of what we are up to!

Why did you decide to start a business?

Because it was the logic next step! Imagine – You have just patented a highly scalable process to manufacture porous films separating A from B. Wouldn’t you like to know if you can translate this finding into the real life and name A and B? In our case that was the trigger! And now, we have named A the “safe and healthy tap water” and B the “undesired contamination that can run in your tap water”. Our customers really love separating A from B with our water filters! They write us that they now love drinking their tap water again or how their back finally got cured because they stopped transporting bottled water. This was worth all the effort up to now.  

What is the vision behind Novamem?

Obviously, we still have many plans to name other A’s and B’s. We strive to bring our membrane technology to our customers and make their lives more convenient, less exhausting and healthier. They should not bother about physical processes occurring on nanometric scales improving their water quality, but they shall feel and taste the positive difference.

From the idea to the start what have been the biggest challenges so far and how did you finance yourself?

Our biggest potential has also been our biggest challenge. The benefit of heaving such a versatile platform technology to separate media also opened a large field of potential applications. Where should we start? Originating from a strong mechanical, chemical and bioengineering background, our first prototypes and small series products obviously were process consumables. For example, we have in our portfolio a solvent resistant membrane made from PEEK. Every process engineer will immediately think of using this membrane in a filter cell for solvent filtration and thus competing with the energetically demanding distillation process. Also, these membranes are still discussed as battery separators for future generations of energy storage devices. However, we soon learned that we were running towards a project-oriented business model like engineering companies have. 

Out of some discussion during a coffee break, the idea of developing an outdoor water filter has then accompanied us for some time. We pushed the project and launched our first successful crowdfunding campaign back in 2014. Not only has this campaign brought our first customers and reoccurring product revenues, the media attention also brought us our first investor. This is where we started to transform into a more consumer-oriented company. We then focused even more on our water business and discovered the need of a small and convenient tap water filter, protecting people from pesticides, microplastics, germs and chlorine taste. In collaboration with a global Swiss kitchen manufacturer, we launched a countertop filter tap to target residential owners, public and business sectors. Today, we can mostly finance ourselves from our product revenues. 

Who is the target group of Novamem?

You, your friends and family who still drink bottled water.

How do Novamem work? What are the advantages? What makes you different from other providers?

Our Novamem membranes work quite similar to existing water filter membranes. Such a membrane can be compared to a spaghetti sieve. If the contaminant is larger than the mesh size of the sieve, it will be filtered. The difference of Novamem lies in its manufacturing process. Our patented process benefits from a physical template process that is used during the membrane fabrication. This allows us to control many more parameters than conventional membrane manufacturing methods can. For example, we can easily control pore size and porosity. These are two important factors when you would like to build a water filter membrane retaining bacteria but still achieve a high flow rate. 

The advantage becomes clearly visible when you compare the size of our water filter DrinkPure HOME to other water filters. We are not only smaller than tap filters from other manufacturers, we can also remove many more contaminants. Since we are in control of the key element in our water filter, our customers do not need to worry about the filter integrity as we control the entire fabrication pathway. They can trust on our expertise and enjoy natural and healthy tap water at home.

How has your company changed with Corona?

In the beginning, we struggled with Corona as many other companies did. End of 2019, we had just finished another financing round and focused on the multiplication of our water business. Fortunately, our online business more or less remained untouched by the lockdown. However, our retail and B2B sales dropped drastically during said period. There were many discussions if “Corona Virus” and “Air in public places” are our new A/B-pairing. From a product level, there were only a few points that needed further discussion to build an air filter mask. Our technology allows us to readily produce air filter membranes.

We initially conducted trials on particle retention using cigarette smoke. The soot particles are very small and can be compared to the virus agglomerates spread by SARS-CoV-2 patients. We were very pleased to see that the test has met our expectation. However, we have just doubled our production and lab space to comply with the expected increasing demand for our water filters. Investing in the up-scale of an air filter production, its marketing and its sales channels might be critical for our liquidity during such unpredictable times.

How did you adjust to it and what changes have you made?

Luckily, Alexander Pieper, CEO of Kraftwerk Tools, dropped by end of March. We discussed our ability to join forces during this crisis and we made a decision – A washable cotton mask containing a replaceable membrane filter. This not only helps to reduce plastic waste but also enhances wearing comfort due to the natural cotton fiber. The mask further contains a metallic gear that bends around your nose for a tight seal. Especially people wearing glasses profit from this simple detail. 

After three months of intense exchange, Kraftwerk and Novamem now present this membrane community masks to the public. The masks have been tested by an accredited Swiss laboratory (SQTS, Swiss Quality Testing Services) that attested a particle removal rate of more than 95%. This exceeds the minimum of 70% by far, established by the Swiss COVID19 Task Force Recommendations. We are now scaling up the production as the membrane masks are gaining momentum.

Where do you see the opportunity in the crisis?

This crisis shook many well-established markets. As a start-up, we usually face more difficulties and more resilience by potential partners. After all, a “start-up” is a beginning of something unknown. In a pre-COVID scenario, entering these markets would have been more time consuming and demanding. Hence, the opportunity absolutely lies in the fact that start-ups in general are used to the unknown. Thereby we can maneuver with more flexibility and experience right now opportunities never seen before. With all due respect to the victims of this disease, we believe in the positive effect of this crisis for our future. 

Novamem, where does the road go? Where do you see yourself in five years?

Besides our water business, we are going to put our effort also into the air filter side. Both shall become our two pillars to create a stable company. We are currently working on new products for our customers. One will be launched already this year, so do not forget to subscribe to our newsletter on our webpage! We see more than ever the potential of our water and air filter products. Also, our next step is the establishment of our B2C business in Germany. Therefore, we already see ourselves to successfully serve our neighboring country with our high-tech filter solutions.

At the end: Which 3 tips would you give to future founders?

  1. Whenever you are unsure, you may listen to Frank Sinatra’s My Way. The journey is the key.
  2. No does not mean no, just not now.
  3. Always write a Christmas card to your business partners and sponsors.

More information you will find here

Thank you Christoph and Michael for the Interview

Statements of the author and the interviewee do not necessarily represent the editors and the publisher opinion again.

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