University of Washington clean water spinout Membrion raises $6M

Membrion’s silica gel-based membranes. (Membrion Photo)

A Seattle startup that wants to increase access to fresh water just raised $6 million in new funding.

Membrion makes membranes that are critical components in machines that turn some types of salty water, such as underground aquifers and estuaries, into fresh water. Membrion says its membranes lower the cost of filtering so-called “brackish water” by approximately 30 percent, making a previously un-affordable process more doable.

Membrion uses silica gel material, which is “typically found in those little packets in your shoes and beef jerky to make high performing, yet lower cost, membranes that are in need in a variety of industries,” Membrion CEO Greg Newbloom told GeekWire. He likened the technology to a coffee filter built for molecules.

Membrion, which has nine full-time employees and two part-timers, will use the money to continue commercializing the product and build a Seattle manufacturing facility. The company does have some paying customers, but Newbloom declined to name them.

“With this funding, we’re thrilled to move from the lab to commercial production, develop a new manufacturing facility and ramp up production for customers,” Newbloom said.

Right now, Membrion is focusing on the “electrodialysis reversal” desalination market, where companies like General Electric and others are trying to create more fresh water with potential shortages looming. The company’s membranes can also purify pharmaceuticals, wastewater and other types of liquids.

The startup spun out of the University of Washington in 2016, and since then it has raised $7.4 million in equity in its lifetime and received an additional $2.1 million in grants. Its backers include UW, Amazon, the National Science Foundation and the Murdock Charitable Trust.

Bellingham Angel Investors led the Series A round, which included participation from new investors WRF Capital and SeaChange Fund and existing investors.

Newbloom was a lecturer at UW for nearly four years, ending in the summer of 2018. He also co-founded another Seattle-area startup: PolyDrop, which turns regular coatings like paint into conductive substances.

Chairman John Plaza founded and led a biodiesel startup called Imperium Renewables. Membrion COO Phillip Pickett has more than 25 years of experience working on energy startups.

Newbloom said the company was born out of a desire to lower the cost of renewable energy and clean water. Existing membranes, Newbloom said, were too expensive with limited performance.

“Membrion started when we realized that we had created something that could dramatically accelerate access to these critical resources while also making money,” Newbloom said. “At that point, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”