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Getting to Know ZwitterCo: 2018 Winner of Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition

Alex Rappaport, MSIM 18, poses at Greentown Labs

The 2019 $100k New Ventures Competition semi-finals are being held this week! If you are interested in learning more about the types of pitches and companies you may see at the $100k, check out what one of last year’s winners, Alex Rappaport, has to say about his team’s company and the competition.

Please tell us a little about what ZwitterCo is and how it came about?
ZwitterCo is a wastewater treatment solutions provider, with a flagship nanofiltration product that delivers precision separation of contaminants larger than one nanometer while remaining immune to organic fouling. Fouling is a technical term for ‘membrane clogging’ – when the contaminants being removed adhere to the surface of the membrane – which leads to higher energy costs, more frequent system cleaning, more frequent membrane replacement, and in some cases, periodic facility shutdown. The ability for our membranes to filter organic contaminants (like fats, oils, and greases – common byproducts of industrial processes) allows us to access markets previously infeasible for filtration technologies. The innovation behind our technology is a zwitterionic polymer invented by Dr. Ayse Asatekin, a chemical engineering professor at Tufts, which forms the active layer of our membrane and maintains this remarkable fouling resistance. ZwitterCo secured an exclusive license on the technology from the Tufts University Office of Technology Transfer with the intent of implementing commercial solutions for some of the wastewater industry’s most challenging applications.

Which resources did you find most useful throughout your experience with the $100k competition?
The Tufts Entrepreneurship Center & Gordon Institute faculty were instrumental in ZwitterCo’s success. The faculty helped review and give feedback on numerous iterations of the $100k presentation & helped the team troubleshoot around solving early business model questions. Additionally, we used the funds from winning the Tufts Ideas Competition to fly down to the Produced Water Society conference in Sugarland, Texas, which gave us really helpful exposure to experts in the wastewater industry that were familiar with and could validate the problem we were trying to solve.

What are the major trends and opportunities in the general/high tech space that you are most excited about?
One fascinating trend is the intersection between hardware, data, & resource efficiency; the idea that the most valuable solutions today come from companies that don’t just offer SaaS solutions or physical products. As an environmentally focused founder, I get excited by companies that leverage software and intelligence to solve challenges in the food, water, energy, & waste spaces. I know of one company making intelligent sensors to adjust and optimize the cleaning cycles of industrial equipment, increasing equipment lifespan and cutting down on cleaning chemical usage. Another company has retrofittable components for municipal sewers that, using intelligent monitoring of weather patterns, can better buffer a city’s resiliency against major storms and other disasters. Another exciting field is in biomimicry; a lot of work in the biotech & advanced materials spaces focuses on associating ingenious solutions derived from nature to technical challenges in other domains.

What sort of traction have you had since winning the $100K New Ventures Competition?
Since winning the $100k, ZwitterCo has won grants from both the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and National Science Foundation. We have moved into Greentown Labs, the largest clean-tech incubator in the united states, and were selected for Imagine H2O’s highly selective accelerator cohort. We’ve raised a seed round from individual angel investors and have succeeded with scaling the fabrication of our technology to commercially-viable methods. We’re now interacting with potential customers by testing materials in our laboratory, with the goal of having our first commercial installation this year.

What do you know now that you wish you would have known earlier?
As powerful as technology can be, it’s only viable in the hands of a competent team with constructive working dynamics. There are inevitable setbacks and things that just don’t go right the first few times; having a team that trusts one another and has the experience and talent to be adaptive in their problem-solving is a far greater indicator of future success than a killer piece of tech. Also, arguing with your team is a good thing; there should always be someone in the room who tests assumptions and considers the negative outfall of decisions. Otherwise, group-think can take you down some very destructive paths.

What one piece of advice you have for Tufts students who are interested in or are starting their venture now?
Find who you love working with, based on mutual interest and working styles. I spent way too long trying to figure out what my “idea” was going to be. ZwitterCo’s current success is much more about the network I built as a student involved in the TEC ecosystem and the team I ultimately pulled together.

ZwitterCo Team

See ZwitterCo Team in the photo above from left to right: Chris Roy (VP, Product); Chris Drover (CTO); Shaka Drover (Chief Morale Officer -“the dog”); Alex Rappaport (CEO); Aditi Deorukhakar (VP, Business Development)