By Brita Belli
Rob McGinnis (’02, MS’07, PhD’09) first got into water scarcity issues while he was a theater major at Yale and became fixated on the idea of how to desalinate water using less fuel. That interest led him to invent a new technology for forward osmosis desalination, and to later pursue both an MS and PhD in Environmental Engineering. That invention would be commercialized in a startup McGinnis founded called Oasys Water. His unique draw solution could burn off at much lower temperatures than traditional solutions, requiring a tenth of the electricity at a fraction of the cost. Oasys went on to raise $35 million in investments and is positioned to reap major benefits in cleaning the water contaminated through hydraulic fracturing operations.
Meanwhile, McGinnis has spent the last couple years developing a new but complementary business called Nagare. Forward osmosis depends on membranes that the draw solution pulls the contaminated water through. McGinnis’ new startup is focused on vastly improving these membranes using carbon nanotubes. “People have been making carbon nanotube membranes in labs for the last 10 years,” says McGinnis. “But no one has yet been able to make them to scale and at a small cost. It’s a holy grail of membrane technology—and that’s what we think we’ve figured out.”
Nagare was one of just 18 companies of nearly 500 applicants selected to join a novel new incubator in New York called Grand Central Tech located in Facebook’s former New York headquarters. The accelerator opened June 16 at Madison Avenue and its founders—Charlie Bonello and Matt Harrigan—have reinvented the incubator model to focus on the long-term. Rather than offering startups funding or taking equity, they are providing rent-free space and mentorship for one year with the understanding that the startups will rent space in the building after that year ends. “They are creating an ecosystem,” says McGinnis, “it’s a really clever model that other people are going to follow.” Milstein Properties owns the building and has donated the space specifically to push New York City’s tech and startup scene to new heights.
McGinnis plans to spend his year at Grand Central Tech validating his prototype product—a product that has potential for both consumers and the water desalination industry. Ultimately, Nagare would produce a low-cost water filter for consumers that would safely remove all known contaminants—including things like lead, pesticides, and water-borne diseases. Any water source of any quality could essentially become a source for safe, drinkable fresh water. Moreover, the filter may merely need to be shaken in order to clean it. A larger version of the membrane is being developed for water desalination plants—and could provide a complementary product for McGinnis’ earlier company, Oasys, and others like it.
“I want to put these filters in the hands of the billions of people who need them, that is the goal,” McGinnis says. “The problems of water scarcity and water-borne disease seem insurmountable, but they can be solved.”