Active Membranes: The Future of Fresh Water is Bright
By Nicole Wilkins
The growth of Los Angeles as a startup hub is highlighted by a robust and diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem within UCLA. The Magnify Incubator at CNSI is no exception to showcasing the range of early-stage businesses.
One such company within the Magnify incubator, Active Membranes, is innovating the future of fresh water through membrane desalination. As freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce around the globe, resources such as seawater and industrial wastewater are costly to procure and operate. The company’s patented technology is electrically conducting nanofiltration and reverse osmosis spiral wound membrane modules capable of actively resisting scaling and fouling.
Active Membranes’ technology substantially reduces the cost and footprint of these processes. Because it can be applied to any membrane-based water treatment system, at any scale from household point-of-use to large commercial plants, the combined market opportunity exceeds $20B.
“The value add to a startup company from a university standpoint is a showcase that goes beyond teaching, and creates an engine for business ideas and growth,” said David Jassby, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UCLA as well as co-founder and advisor for Active Membranes. “Here at UCLA, we are growing and developing young minds for success after college which is directly translatable to future skills and solving societal problems and that is exciting when we can create ideas that address specific problems. In the case of Active Membranes, it is fresh water.”
The company is also receiving accolades not just in their industry, but from the startup community as well. Active Membranes recently won the 2023 GWI Water Tech Idol Award for “Developing innovative solutions for inland desalination plants to reduce concentrate volumes and increase fresh water supplies in water short areas.”
The company also recently won $30,000 in funding as part of the inaugural UCLA Innovation Showcase at Google’s Venice Beach headquarters presented by the Venture Accelerator at UCLA Anderson School of Management. The showcase enabled startup founders across UCLA’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to pitch venture capitalists and compete for funding opportunities. Active Membranes co-founder Arian Edalat was recognized for the company’s innovative work in the water treatment and desalination space.
“We are targeting water problems that are local which is providing fresh, clean water to Southern California,” said Edalat. “But all this translates to global climate efforts. We are seeing the support for entrepreneurship not only in our campus administration but in the local and state sectors as well.”
The company boasts an impressive roster of co-founders and staff, including co-founder Eric Hoek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UCLA and member of the CNSI, who coincidentally had success with the first Magnify incubator startup company, NanoH20, which was acquired by LG Chem in 2014.
Hoek also had a hand in giving the company Active Membranes its name.
“The state-of-the-art membranes today are passive barriers to contaminants while allowing water to pass,” said Hoek. “Those contaminants build up in the membrane surface and cause dramatic, sometimes catastrophic loss of performance. Active’s membranes have the same basic separation performance, while actively resisting the buildup of contaminants, and so they maintain high performance much longer and with less pretreatment than the current generation of commercial products. Hence, the name Active Membranes.”
Active Membranes is currently the only water company in the Magnify incubator at CNSI, which provides resources such as co-working laboratory and office spaces along with business resources to startup companies.
“This support allows startups like Active Membranes to succeed by accelerating their access to innovation infrastructure needed while increasing their capital efficiency and market opportunities,” said Nikki Lin, Director of the Magnify Incubator.
Edalat acknowledges the support Magnify provides has been crucial in their early success.
“There is so much networking taking place in the incubator environment,” said Edalat. “As founders we see each other regularly, showcase our businesses and technologies and get ideas from each other.”
For now, the future looks bright for Active Membranes. The company is moving into a new facility in the next few months and conducting field pilots in California and Arizona.
“We are looking for people who are interested to come to these events, see how our technology works, taste the water,” said Edalat. “We want everyone to see how this can be an engine for growth to recover more water, minimize water pretreatment requirements and is ultimately a less complex solution with a smaller footprint.”