A healthy ecosystem depends on clean water. Unfortunately, PFAS – a group of strongly bonded, synthetic chemicals known as ‘forever chemicals’ – threaten not just our health today, but the health of our planet stretching thousands of years into the future.
One solution to the problem: lightning! Harvard alumnus-founded venture Onvector uses plasma (ionized gas) to treat recalcitrant contaminants in water via an advanced oxidation/reduction process. Rather than filtering chemicals out, the process actually destroys contaminants by breaking chemical bonds. In addition to being more effective than other oxidation processes, plasma is up to 97% more energy efficient than incineration (the current practice for highly recalcitrant, concentrated hazardous wastes). This efficiency lowers the barrier to clean water free of damaging chemicals.
Onvector, founded in 2013, has received $1.5 million in grants, with $900K pre-seed funding to complete basic science and R&D. They have had 3 patents issued, with 4 patents pending. Most recently, Onvector was awarded a new research grant from the USDA to develop plasma technology to enable wastewater re-use for irrigation. Onvector is also a member of the Harvard Climate Entrepreneur’s Circle, an incubation program for high-potential ventures working to address climate change. The Climate Circle has incubated over 40 ventures, with some extraordinary progress to date.
Read on for our interview with Onvector CEO, Daniel Cho!
Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start this venture? How did you come to do this work?
Daniel Cho: I was a consultant in water technology, new market evaluation, and technology evaluation for water companies. Working on projects in the “water-energy nexus” helped me to understand the pivotal role that water plays in generating power. Conversely, this work also showed me the delimiting roles of cost and energy efficiency in water purification. I began to see a special need for next-generation water treatment technology powered by electrification. Plasma is pure energy, smart and controllable by automation, with the potential to meet this need.
HIL: Can you describe how you pivoted to your current market?
Cho: Basically, plasma is robust. What’s more robust than arc lightning? After testing a range of applications for plasma, we zeroed in on the very hardest contaminants to treat: PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).
PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” are a large and diverse family of synthetic compounds that are resistant to water, oil, heat, and other chemicals. They are used throughout industrial manufacturing as well as for consumer products. They coat non-stick frying pans, stain-resistant carpets, waterproof clothing, upholstery, food-packaging, food-containers, aluminum foil, and more.
The feature that makes these materials so useful, which is their resistance to breaking down, also makes them harmful at trace levels and difficult to clear from the human body. Forever chemicals have been shown in clinical literature to increase the risk of liver cancer, kidney cancer, and testicular cancer; decrease fertility and infant birth weight as well as cause high blood pressure during pregnancy; increase cholesterol levels, asthma, reduce responsiveness to vaccination, and more.
HIL: And, I imagine, other animals and creatures, too.
Cho: Definitely. PFAS are truly ubiquitous. There is emerging research on PFAS contamination of fish, and it’s increasingly recognized as an issue in our food crops because nutrient-rich biosludges (both Class A and B Biosolids) from sewage treatment plants are often spread over farmland as fertilizer. But to give you an idea of just how pervasive PFAS “forever chemicals” are in people, nearly 100% of Americans have PFAS in their bloodstream. PFAS are also detectable in nearly 100% of mothers’ breast milk samples and fetal umbilical cord blood samples.
HIL: Can you tell me about your involvement in the Climate Circle? How did you get involved and what has it been like to be a part of this cohort?
Cho: Sanjay Seth, a Kennedy school alumnus who leads climate resilience for the City of Boston, co-founded HACE, Harvard Alumni for Climate and the Environment. This alumni network has blossomed over a very short period of time. This year, together with Harvard i-lab, HACE created the Climate Circle, a cohort of sixteen startups at various stages dedicated to climate impact. The circle harnesses the climate network, an advisory network, and the i-lab’s resources to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship.
I’ve been attending HACE meetings for a while (and they’ve been outstanding), getting perspective on themes like climate ag as well as hearing from Harvard activists. Then I learned about Sanjay, Rebekah Emanuel, Ling Lin, Suvranil Majumdar and others dedicating their own time to create and support the Climate Circle, so Onvector decided to apply to join. It’s been collegial and exploratory so far. This is the inaugural cohort, and I think anticipation is high that HACE can leverage the growing awareness of the need for climate innovation and combine that with the power of the Harvard alumni network.
HIL: What keeps you motivated as you develop your venture?
Cho: The impact. I’m a realist, so I recognize some level of human depopulation may ultimately be inevitable. But I also understand that technical innovation is the key for human flourishing over the next two generations. We are hitting climate tipping points. The only upside is that political will increases as a function of catastrophic loss. As a community, we have to come together and act. Onvector’s work in particular has the potential to make a triple impact on human health, water conservation, and emissions prevention.
You see, PFAS can be removed using traditional water treatment technologies such as activated carbon, ion exchange, or reverse osmosis. But once we remove it from water, what do we do with the concentrated residual waste? If we burn it, and incineration is not complete, we will increase global warming because fluorinated emissions have thousand-fold greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide. And even if incineration of concentrated PFAS wastes is perfectly complete, the incineration process itself typically generates its own emissions, regardless of whether we use rotary kilns or waste-to-energy systems. With plasma, Onvector can break the molecules into their base elements and mineralize – or essentially neutralize them – in water. Using electrification as our primary input, they become safe without having to destroy water.
HIL: What’s next for your venture? What are some next steps for you, and how do you see your venture growing?
Cho: Next up is pilot testing on US Air Force bases with contaminated groundwater. The EPA is still in the process of figuring out how to regulate PFAS. They need to be careful because they do not want to increase the cost of water. They need to balance that with the clinical health risk which is also still emerging science. However, in places where fire-fighting foams were used routinely for training purposes over decades — like military bases, firefighter schools, and commercial airports — the level of contamination can be so high that no nationally harmonized regulatory standard is really needed. Fire-fighting foam used to be manufactured using concentrated PFAS (for obvious reasons), so levels of contamination can be severe. There are clusters of illness emerging, causing high levels of controversy and consequent remediation actions. Onvector is working on a program at Joint Base Cape Cod that’s funded by SBIR under the Air Force. We are working hard to demonstrate our technology, technically and economically, as we advance our commercialization plan.
HIL: Has your venture been affected by COVID-19 this year?
Cho: It was challenging for us in terms of distancing and the laboratory work. However, in many ways we’ve been able to accelerate. Our Massachusetts lab at the Greentown Labs incubator in Somerville was able to continue rapid prototyping of our plasma reactors but was otherwise virtual until recent months. Our Pennsylvania lab near Philadelphia continued working straight through as scientific R&D was included as essential work from the start.
Onvector is part of our series of profiles on ventures in the inaugural Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle, a global cohort of Harvard students and alumni actively working on solutions that tackle climate change. Want to learn more about what businesses are doing, can do, and should do to confront climate change? Check out the BEI Climate Rising podcast, hosted by Rebekah Emanuel, Director of Social Entrepreneurship for the Harvard Innovation Labs.