Henrik, tell us about yourself and how you got the idea for Puraffinity?
I'm a bioengineer by trade, having studied at Imperial College where I discovered engineering biology. I had the opportunity to compete in the world's biggest engineering biology research competition, iGEM, for the 2014 Imperial College team, where we worked out the idea that directly led to Puraffinity.
There is a small group of contaminants that affects the availability of freshwater and we were inspired by the ability of biotech tools to introduce selectivity and efficiency, particularly in medicine and therapeutics. Our idea was to combine these two concepts to selectively target and extract the most potent contaminants from water.
How does it work?
Puraffinity engineers use advanced materials to capture impurities in water. Our current product looks like hard-engineered sand, operating in large steel tanks with water flowing through from top to bottom.
We think of the surface of our material like a hand - our molecular receptors grab the most potent contaminants selectively to help purify the water. We’ve also designed our materials to be reusable by using an onsite procedure called a safe liquid wash, to reduce product waste. You can think of this step as the hand releasing the captured chemicals on command, leaving it free to start again when needed.
Why did you decide to apply to the Enterprise Fellowship Programme?
I first heard about the Launchpad Competition and applied with an early stage idea for Puraffinity in 2015, but I didn't make it through to the final stage. In 2016, I saw the Enterprise Fellowship programme were accepting applications, so I was encouraged to apply again.
Before I applied, I met up with a current Enterprise Fellowship holder, who shared their experiences with me. When they told me about having access to experienced mentors from industry, with support available when things got difficult and a peer network of some of the brightest and best young engineers in the UK, I immediately saw the impact that the programme could have on me and Puraffinity. I also loved the fact that the Enterprise Fellowship would give me a personal award to help cover my living expenses as well as covering prototyping and business expenses.
Describe what a typical month’s interaction with the Enterprise Hub involves?
A typical month could involve going to workshops, learning from leading experts about the tricks of the trade and from other very impressive Hub Members facing similar challenges. One of these workshops shaped our recruitment process at Puraffinity and has been fundamental in helping us secure a diverse team within a sector that generally lacks diversity. We have similar examples of workshops helping us in sales and negotiation too.
What impact did the programme have on yourself and subsequently your business? What are the most important lessons you learnt?
The programme helped me make the transition from being a scientific engineer to becoming a commercial lead in a startup with an evidence-based approach. It provided the foundations and reflection space crucial for early stage entrepreneurs like me, and eventually provided me with the confidence and tools to become the CEO as we grew as a company.
The mentoring was without a doubt the most crucial factor, particularly the insights about the water treatment technology sector shared by Professor John K Banyard OBE FREng and on the venture capital investment space by Professor Richard Brook OBE FREng and Dr David Parker FREng.
What tips would you give to potential applicants?
If you see someone who has gone through the programme with a similar profile to you, try to reach out to them! You'd be surprised how generous the other Enterprise Fellows are with their time when it comes to supporting fellow entrepreneurs, which is one of the big lessons I learned from applying.
What’s the one piece of advice you would you give to other entrepreneurial engineers?
Engineering is about using an evidence-based approach to problem solving, and I could say the same thing about entrepreneurship. We're seeing an emergence of first principle approaches in entrepreneurship and engineering fits very well into this type of thinking.
What does the future hold for Puraffinity?
Puraffinity’s future will have a significant impact on human and environmental health if we successfully deploy our product line for treatment of the toxic chemicals PFAS (Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) in water. These chemicals end up in people's blood from drinking water, which can lead to an increased occurrence of up to six diseases, costing the EU €50-84 billion in health costs annually.
With the help of the Enterprise Hub we have raised £2.8 million from leading sustainability investors. This will enable us to scale our first product line and increase our team of 14 to more than 20 by 2020. We've tested our product for PFAS treatment with successful in-house trials and we are now using these learnings to demonstrate the solution onsite with clients next year.