Interview with Jonathan Rhone, President & CEO of Axine Water Technologies
What is Axine’s Genesis story?
Axine was founded by Colleen Legzdins, a Ph.D. materials engineer with a deep history in the electrochemical industry who was most recently with Ballard Material Products and Ballard Power Systems (our leading fuel cell company up here in Vancouver). Colleen left that company several years ago, wanting to apply her knowledge in electrochemistry to another area of cleantech. She looked at various parts of the cleantech ecosystem and finally settled on wastewater because she could see that there was an incredible amount of pain points in industrial water treatment related to this area that she thought electrochemistry could improve upon. And she basically settled on the thesis that non-biodegradable and toxic organics in industrial waste water are really persistent pain points in many different industries, like oil & gas, chemicals, semiconductors, textiles, and mining. She looked at the incumbent solution for treating those types of persistent chemicals, things like volatile organic compounds, ammonia, nitrogen species, benzenes, dissolved hydrocarbons, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, dyes from textiles…
Things that are super difficult to treat because they’re persistent and recalcitrant and not biodegradable and cannot be broken down with conventional biological waste water treatment. The incumbent way to treat these things is typically chemical oxidation, which means using chemical oxidants like ozone, hydrogen peroxide, and potassium permanganate, as well as processes like evaporation and reverse osmosis. Predominately we would compete with chemical oxidants. We sometimes would compete with evaporation, but only in certain niches. Occasionally reverse osmosis as well, but, again, only in certain niches.
Basically we use an off-the-shelf membrane which is treated with a proprietary catalyst coating (simple metal oxide, very inexpensive) and we flow the wastewater down the face of this catalyst-coated membrane. The catalyst is designed to produce hydroxyl radicals in the presence of electricity and water
and these OH radicals are a very, very aggressive and highly reactive oxidant. She [Colleen] has essentially come up with a high-efficacy oxidation process which has lower costs and better performance than the incumbent solutions.
So it’s a really cool technology: when most people look at our economics and our performance numbers, they see it as a breakthrough, disruptive approach.
What excites you most about 2014, or the next chapter for Axine?
Well I think the most exciting thing for me is to see how this technology can address very extensive pain points that customers have and seeing how we can alleviate that pain with a much better solution. I think we’re going to be able to translate that pent-up demand for a new standard of treatment solutions by getting our equipment onto those customer sites and validating what we believe in terms of cost and performance. These are really large markets where we can plug our technology into these operating facilities to reduce costs and improve performance. I’m really excited about being able to get to customer sites with our equipment. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
OK. A few more questions. Could you share what you would imagine being some of the challenges or hurdles facing Axine?
So number 1: with companies like Axine, it’s super important to make sure you build a world-class team of professionals across all the different scopes, from technical to commercial, and I’m really proud of the team we’ve put in place so far. I think they will attract an equal caliber of staff as we grow. That is a huge preoccupation of Axine; we’ve got extremely high standards for our team members. The men and women that come to work for Axine are focused on solving customer pain points in these different markets, and they also have not only a tremendous amount of expertise in product development but a deep background in industrial commercialization deployment and supply chain manufacturing. So that’s the number one challenge – ensuring that we maintain the quality of our team as we grow.
Number 2: any time we’re talking about an industrial process technology, where the technology has to process an input and achieve a desired performance output… runtime and the associated reliability and durability of the technology is always something that we are thinking about. Our customers are going to require us to deploy rock-solid equipment that’s got verifiable and predictable service and maintenance. So that’s very important to us.
And I think number 3, and this is kind of a fun challenge but a challenge nevertheless, is that the technology has such as broad application across a wide variety of markets. Oil & Gas is a huge opportunity: a huge market for us. Chemicals, semiconductors, textiles, pharmaceuticals… we can’t do everything at once, so picking the markets that are going to allow us to generate high margins, have fast speed to market, and where we can get to repeatable sales is a big priority for us. So choosing which verticals, based on our criteria, and focusing on a small subset of those to get into the market is going to be crucial.
Final question, and thank you for your time so far, can you tell me a little about what you like most about what you do?
So I think that cleantech is an evolving industry, and what I’m really excited about is this new generation of clean technologies that, like Axine, have the promise of superior environmental performance for our customers but also the promise of dramatically reducing their costs. We can solve significant pain points that beat the incumbents on cost and performance, and that’s what I think is going to define the future and success of cleantech. And that’s really exciting for me – that gets me up every day.