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Startup Using Magnets for Salt-Free Solution to Softening Water

In the weeks leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) finals on June 4th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote, we will get to know our 11 semi-finalists. Today, meet AkwaMag.

Have you ever noticed the build-up of limescale — hard, chalky deposits — in your kettle, on your dishes or sometimes around your taps? This is the side effect of “hard water” evaporating. Other than being unsightly, hard water deposits can clog pipes and accelerate corrosion.

The traditional solution to this problem (other than regular scrubbing) would be to utilize a water-softening agent. However, most water-softening agents on the market are salt-based, which can be costly and can disrupt the salinity of groundwater. A gentler, more sustainable solution, developed by startup AkwaMag, uses High Intensity Multi-Pass™ magnetic technology to soften water at an unlimited capacity while eliminating the salt discharges — and required maintenance — of its competitors.

“I got tired of my wife asking me to clean up around the house,” chuckled Tuyen Vo, who is on his third startup with AkwaMag. “I thought, if I can come up with a solution to mitigate the hardening process, I can free up my time for other things.”

Vo, founder and CTO of AkwaMag, then decided to capitalize on his background in industrial process engineering and magnetic fields by developing an environmentally friendly water softener at half the price of current conventional softeners.

He says he applied to SBIO because he wanted to get the message out to consumers and ratepayers who could directly benefit and make a difference.

Below, Raleigh Ormerod, Akwamag’s Chief Marketing Officer, gave me more insight into the development of this unique product.

CM: What was the motivation/inspiration for AkwaMag? What is the meaning of the name?

RO: Tuyen Vo worked in process engineering in the utility industry, where he became aware of the vast amounts of water required in cooling power plants and boilers where industrial scale water softening becomes very important. He innovated the magnetic water-softening technology to optimize his industrial HelioMist cooling technology. Tuyen then adapted the water-softening technology and created AkwaMag.

The name AkwaMag is a phonetic concatenation of ‘aqua’ and ‘mag’ (for magnetic). As the performance of the product is much greater than earlier magnetic softening technologies, Mag is also an abbreviation for “Magnum.”

CM: Can you explain how the magnetic softening process works? Why has AkwaMag been successful compared to earlier attempts at magnetic softening?

CM: How large is the water softener market?

RO: The current residential/commercial market exceeds $1.7 billion. Hard water affects more than two-thirds of the United States. The EPA cites a figure of 10 million water softeners, primarily of the salt-resin kind (source: Stephanie Tanner, EPA WaterSense 2011). These softeners have an average lifespan of 5-10 years, so the size of the annual softener replacement market can be two million softeners, ranging from $400 for an entry-level system to $15,000 for sophisticated RO systems, with an average of $850/system or $1.7 billion annually. This number is conservative because it does not include new water softener installations.

The global market for industrial water de-scaling and reprocessing is roughly $38 billion. (source: ESG & Sustainability, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch 2012). This market consists of multiple segments: boilers (160,000 in US alone), cooling systems (buildings, power plants), shale gas water (fracking), well-injection of produced water (for every barrel of oil produced, there is on average 2.5 barrels of water byproduct, which increases to 8 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced in North America, all of which need to be re-injected back underground).

CM: Why did you target the residential market before the commercial space?

RO: When we won the California Cleantech Open in 2008, we were in a major recession where most utility companies were seeing sharp decreases in revenues for several years. As a result, the industry was more focused on revenue and operations restructuring than investment in new capital equipment. Likewise, many startup companies with game-changing technologies had severe difficulties raising the large sums of money required for pilot scale industrial applications of new technologies. Believing strongly in the power of his invention to address key sustainability needs for energy efficiency and water conservation, Tuyen pivoted his strategy to the consumer market where prototypes were less costly to build and qualify for market. The strategy was successful as AkwaMag had a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. In fact, it’s in the top 20 percent of all environmental Indiegogo projects.

CM: How large is your team?

RO: The core management team consists of Founder/CTO Tuyen Vo, [myself], Sales VP Ken Lee and webmaster Chris Visaya. We also have a full advisory team with legal, financial, technical and general business expertise — some of whom will come on board as staff once we achieve sufficient funding through sales operations or investment.

CM: What have been your biggest challenges so far?

RO: Besides funding, the biggest challenge has been getting the attention of consumers, ratepayers and other key stakeholders in the water and energy space. Tuyen has great strength in technology and process development and the vision and courage to keep it going. He recognized that he needed business, marketing, sales and finance expertise to launch his enterprise. The growing AkwaMag team deeply appreciates the interest and help from the organizers of the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open to help us get the word out and attract the quality of additional help we are seeking.

CM: Any partnerships?

RO: We have partnered with the European company Wetsus (a research institute for sustainable water technology) and several states. We also think it is pretty cool that our technology has been selected by NASA as one of the most promising for inclusion in the International Space Station.

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