Oxymem: Accolades aplenty for UCD water purification spin-out

Firm has developed a new form of delivering oxygen in wastewater purification

From left: Dr Eoin Syron, technical director, Wayne Byrne, managing director and Prof Eoin Casey, OxyMem chairman

From left: Dr Eoin Syron, technical director, Wayne Byrne, managing director and Prof Eoin Casey, OxyMem chairman

Mon, Jul 21, 2014, 01:00

A UCD spin-out founded just last year is in line for a hat-trick of major innovation and industry awards in 2014 alone. Oxymem began this remarkable run back in April when it won the overall ‘Innovation of the Year’ Award at the 2014 Irish Times InterTradeIreland Innovation Awards. The company followed this accolade last month by winning the first Water Innovation SME Award in Europe for Membrane Technologies at the Water Innovation Europe 2014 conference in Brussels.

And it has just been announced as one of only nine companies established by academic entrepreneurs to be shortlisted for the sixth annual Academic Enterprise Awards. The Academic Enterprise Awards are the only pan-European awards dedicated to spin-out companies emerging from universities and public research institutes.

“We have been doing very well on the accolade side of things”, says Oxymem chief executive Wayne Byrne. “They give us a great opportunity to stand in the light and they have definitely opened up doors for us. They have a cascade effect and The Irish Times Innovation Award was particularly important as it put us on the map with potential partners who would not have been aware of our existence before that.”

The company has developed a revolutionary new system which can reduce the operating costs of wastewater treatment plants by up to 75 percent as well as bringing other significant improvements in terms of ease of deployment. These gains are achieved through a complete re-engineering of the means by which oxygen is delivered to the process which is the result of research carried out over the past decade by Prof Eoin Casey and Dr Eoin Syron of UCD’s School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering.

The wastewater treatment process uses bacteria to break down the waste substances in water. The micro-organisms require oxygen which is normally supplied through a highly energy-intensive forced aeration system which sends bubbles of compressed air through the bottom of the treatment tank. This technology has been in use for a century and has not been subject to any significant changes during that period. It is extremely inefficient with less than 30 percent of the oxygen supplied being transferred to the wastewater in a typical plant.

Gas permeable membranes

The Oxymem system abandons this method completely and uses gas-permeable membranes located in the tank itself to transfer the oxygen to the microbes. In effect, it involves a series of hollow tubes made with gas-permeable silicon which allows oxygen to pass through it but not water. The bacteria adhere to the outside of the tubes where they can take in the oxygen while doing their work on the waste.

The system is delivered as a sealed container and more or less just has to be plugged in. “We are currently shipping the units as packaged treatment plants and that’s the plan for the next few years”, says Byrne. “These small packaged treatment plants are suitable for populations of between 500 and 2,000 so they can be used for villages or small towns. We will build those for the next year or two at least. The time will come when we start looking at much larger plants to meet the needs of 10,000 or even 100,000 population sizes.”

The current output is very suitable for industry. “The industrial market accounts for about 30 percent of our sales at present”, he points out. “Companies are very eager to save on space. Space is a priority for them as they can be using it for manufacturing and they don’t want to give up any of it. This is particularly the case in the food, beverage and dairy sectors. Our system is very attractive due to its very small footprint.”

The energy savings are very attractive as well. “Energy is the number one challenge facing the industry today and it will continue to be in the future”, Byrne explains. “Every year discharge standards are rising and the global population is growing. We estimate the potential for annual energy savings for wastewater aeration worldwide is in the order of €45 billion.”

Given the benefits and advantages of the system it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the company is growing at a very rapid pace. “We have grown quite a bit since the beginning of the year,” says Byrne with no little understatement. “On January 4th last we had two employees and we now have 20. We now have two production lines here in our plant in Athlone and we are generating revenue. All of our production for 2014 is already spoken for and we are targeting €500,000 in sales for the year and that is not bad for a company which was only founded in 2013.”

The company is in the process of raising funds to finance further growth. “We are in the process of closing out an ‘A’ round of funding for €1.8 million and that has gone very well. We aim to have 12 lines installed by the beginning of next year and to have 35 staff employed by that stage.”

An impressive six-fold increase in turnover is also targeted for 2015.

Continued innovation will remain at the company’s core in the future. “We will continue to address operational challenges. It is that operational innovation that keeps you coming into work the next day. It doesn’t necessarily result in major IP developments but it keeps improving the process and addresses the problems and challenges which our customers experience. Strategic innovation is vitally important to us as well and we continue to work with UCD as well as other academic partners at Cork Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology on that.”

And he is more than a little grateful for the success the company has had so far. “So far, so good”, he says. “We still touch wood every morning when we wake up.”