Dry conditions in New England have been worsening throughout the year, with 57 percent of Massachusetts now in a severe drought. The lack of water is even more acute in the southwest ― it’s the worst drought in 1,200 years.
Manmade climate change is making droughts more frequent and more severe as higher temperatures speed up evaporation rates and reduce snowfall. And that’s bringing renewed attention to climate tech startups seeking to address problems related to the water supply.
Gradiant, a 10-year-old company based in a Woburn office park off Route 128, has developed an energy-efficient technology based on the natural evaporation and rainfall cycle to treat and filter water. The company’s gear is already in use at soda manufacturing plants for Coca-Cola and Pepsi, semiconductor manufacturing sites for Intel and Micron, and pharmaceutical manufacturing factories for Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.
Chief executive Anurag Bajpayee and chief operating officer Prakash Govindan met as graduate students at MIT in 2008.
But the pair didn’t bond immediately. Bajpayee was assigned as Govindan’s international student mentor, since both had grown up in India. But after one awkward breakfast, they failed to connect. It wasn’t until both were working on their PhDs at the Rohsenow Kendall Heat Transfer Lab that they hit it off, finding a common interest in water purification challenges.
Govindan, who grew up in Chennai, the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, said water was a deeply personal issue. “Chennai has some of the most severe water issues,” he said. “I have seen the importance of water in my life.”
It was also already a hot field 15 years ago as the growing fracking industry consumed vast amounts of water and looking for cheaper treatment technologies.
In addition to their personal interest, “to find your way through grad school, you go where the interest is and where the funding is,” Bajpayee said.
In nature, the sun shines on the oceans, causing evaporation. Differing bands of air temperature and concentrations of water ― known as gradients ― cause moisture to rise and form clouds and then rain. Gradiant (the company) develops technology that mimics those cycles by relying on tall towers that can be stationed near factories to clean waste water.
“Nature has the advantage of having all the surface area of the oceans available freely and a free source of energy from the sun,” Govindan said. “We have to engineer this into a compact, highly efficient, and energy-efficient industrial device.”
Gradiant has annual sales over $100 million and is profitable, the cofounders said. The company employs about 500 people worldwide and is expanding in Boston and elsewhere.
The company and rival water tech startups are benefitting from a trend toward decentralization of water treatment, venture capitalist Peter Yolles of Echo River Capital said. Yolles, who has not invested in Gradiant, said the old model of huge municipal facilities can’t cope with the runoff from manufacturing plants that produce a vast array of contaminants.
“New chemicals from the biopharmaceuticals, for example, can’t be treated or even identified by older facilities,” Yolles said. “This is leading to small plants built on site where the water is used that can recycle and treat what’s produced at that location.”
The CHIPS Act, signed into law on Tuesday by President Biden, should fuel even faster growth at Gradiant. The law subsidizes semiconductor manufacturing in the United States, and Gradiant customers including Micron, Intel, and GlobalFoundries all announced expansion plans as a result of its passage.
“We brought our technology to Taiwan and Singapore where chips were made,” Govindan said. “Now it’s like we’re importing back to the US.”
(An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Woburn startup Gradiant.)