Making beer is a water-intensive process: Along with the water that goes into the product itself, another five to seven gallons of wastewater is produced for every gallon of the good stuff because of cleaning, cooling, and packing during a brew. The leftover grains and unused water, chock-full of sugars and alcohol, is expensive to dispose of properly.
Startups like San Diego-based cleantech Aquacycl are working to create alternatives for businesses like breweries that are looking to process spent grain, which municipal water centers can’t process.
“The centralized treatment plant down the line can’t actually handle the concentration of sugars that they’re putting down the drain,” says Orianna Bretschger, CEO of Aquacycl, which works primarily with food and beverage manufacturers. “Our customers are having to contract with other entities to collect their wastewater and haul it offsite … or invest in a lot of infrastructure on site.”
Bretschger’s company, which announced last month it raised $4 million in seed funding to grow its business, has developed a reactor, roughly the size of a car battery, within which microbes chow down on the waste that has polluted the water. The naturally-occurring microbes, which Aquacycl sources from wastewater and local lagoons, produce electricity as a consequence of removing the waste, offsetting the power used to clean the water.
Customers looking to treat polluted water without building their own treatment facility can order 20-foot or 40-foot-long shipping containers packed with the units. The number of units required is determined by Aquacycl based on the volume and makeup of water that needs to be treated, as well as how clean the customer needs it.
“A confectioner that’s only discharging 10,000 gallons of wastewater a day, but it’s super highly concentrated, might need three 40-foot containers, while a brewery that’s got 35,000 gallons a day, but it’s not as contaminated, we could do with one 40-foot container,” Bretschger says.
Pilot installations at a pig farm in the San Diego community of Escondido, CA, and at a residential community in Tijuana, the Mexican border city, have been running since 2016, the year the company launched.
Aquacycl, which calls the units BioElectrochemical Treatment Technology systems, has also done paid demonstrations for the military, including for the US Navy at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii.
The company, previously named Aquam, emerged as a result of research Bretschger was conducting at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, CA. Previously Bretschger studied material science at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering.
In 2017 the startup won a pitch competition at Hera Venture Summit, an annual event hosted by business incubator Hera Labs (now known as Stella Labs). The win connected Bretschger with investor Silvia Mah, who then headed the incubator, who linked Aquacycl with Next Wave Impact, an investment firm that eventually became one of its seed backers. This year’s iteration of that event, since renamed Women’s Venture Summit, is slated for Sept. 14.
The Roddenberry Foundation, which led Aquacycl’s seed round, has supported Bretschger’s research since before the company launched. Rod Roddenberry, the son of Star Trek series creator Gene Roddenberry, founded the organization in 2010.
Other participants in the round, which the company began raising about two years ago, included Tech Coast Angels, the Chemical Angel Network, Cavendish Impact Capital, and individual angel investors.
Based in Sorrento Valley, the 18-person company says the money will go to grow its sales and service teams, form partnerships, and ramp up production.