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An urge to make an impact on the environment and society prompted Andre Stolz and Dr Bert Grobben to quit their well-paid corporate jobs in Singapore. Their quest landed them in the concept of the wastewater management system, and it is already drawing the attention of big organisations.
“We were motivated to start something from the ground up to focus on science-based technologies to help treat highly contaminated waste and efficiently remove organics like oil from water,” said Andre Stolz.
“We took on the challenge, spun out the technology from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), created EcoWorth Tech to provide positive environmental impact through the results generated with large industrial companies,” he added.
Stolz, a German, and Dr Bert Grobben, a Belgian, started EcoWorth Tech to create waste-to-worth applications in industrial wastewater treatment and oil & gas decontamination. The Singaporean startup specialises in transforming waste materials into reusable products — providing financial, environmental, and social protection benefits.
“We commercialise an innovative, sustainable technology called Carbon Fibre Aerogel (CFA), developed at NTU to treat wastewater. CFA is a highly absorbent material that is non-toxic, natural, and recyclable. It can absorb various organic materials (like different types of oils, grease, fats, dyes) from wastewater,” shared Stolz, who has 19 years of experience in innovation portfolio management, product supply and engineering.
CFA can be made from a variety of cellulose-based materials. Examples include empty pam oil fruit branches, waste paper, and sugarcane wastes.
“Our patented process heats the feedstock to high temperatures in controlled conditions. CFA is then applied by incorporating the material into industrial-grade cartridges, thus producing the oil filter product SUPEROF (superior old filter). CFA can be regenerated, allowing customers to reuse CFA cartridges several times before recycling them,” he elaborated. “Compared to other activated carbon (industry standard) and biochar, the CFA technology is about 100x more efficient in absorbency per weight than activated carbon and almost 6x more efficient for absorbency.”
With these innovative filters, wastewater is purified, which can either be reused or released into the environment safe while sometimes offering opportunities to monetise the materials recuperated, like biofuels.
“We are now developing solutions to efficiently remove oil from maritime applications (like bilgewater treatment, tanker washing water, oil traps and interceptor release) as well as from various spills on land and in lakes and ports,” shared Stolz, who met his business partner Dr Grobben in Singapore.
Speaking about the economic and environmental benefits, Stolz said the CFA technology reduces treatment costs for potential clients through superior absorption performances compared to their current solutions. In addition, the recuperation of absorbed organics via the regeneration step of CFA can also drive additional revenue/cost savings via resale/reuse of the said organics. One of EcoWorth’s clients in the oil refinery industry has seen 40x ROI with EcoWorth Tech’s CFA solution, said.
The cleantech startup’s business model is centred around CFA sales and products that house CFA, such as cartridges or absorbent pillows/booms. Its ultimate goal is to deliver a complete end-to-end water treatment solution. EcoWorth charges clients with the delivery, the sales of CFA consumables, and the ongoing maintenance of the said system.
According to Stolz, who previous worked at MNCs such as Braun GmbH and P&G, EcoWorth offers significant opportunities to organisations across sectors. Firstly, CFA can cost-efficiently reduce contaminants in wastewater, and organisations can reuse the filtered water to save on their total water bill and environmental footprints. They can alternatively release the water directly to the environment alleviating the need to pay a third party to dispose of it.
Secondly, the expensive chemicals that the CFA has absorbed can be recuperated and therefore could be reused in subsequent manufacturing processes or sold as a secondary product, thus saving or even making the company money.
Thirdly, as CFA is an ultra-efficient absorbent material, as with the oil & gas solution, the footprint of the treatment facility will become very small, saving the company on square footage space.
Finally, since CFA is an environmentally sustainable technology, companies may be able to source government grants to implement EWT’s CFA treatment solution as part of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme.
“CFA’s beauty is its ability to be applied to various sectors. While the primary target group is the oil & gas industry for water remediation, the team at EcoWorth Tech is currently working on incorporating CFA into the maritime sector as a solution for oily bilge water and as an oil spill remediation,” he said.
Additionally, the company is in talks to partner with various organisations to formulate CFA into cosmetic products and integrate the CFA system in construction applications.
While the company is tapping into tremendous opportunities, it faces several challenges, including adoption. Stolz said: “Companies tend to stick with what already works or is cheaper even if it isn’t the best choice for the environment. This makes it harder for our products to gain acceptance at our commercial scale-up stage, as initial costs may prevent clients from making the necessary switch on existing products/operations.”
However, educating and articulating the overall benefits and costs of the circular economy model helps address this challenge, he noted. Furthermore, the firm conducts pilots with companies to enable clients to get confidence in the results before switching over. Tightening legislation and a stronger push on resource utilisation will support EcoWorth’s mission to help companies achieve positive results by adopting greener solutions while prioritising protecting the environment.
Talking about the competition, Stolz said there are two groups of competitors — those who focus on water treatment and those who concentrate on spill treatment. Competitors for sorbent applications are companies like North Rock Safety Equipment and 3M.
“In a competitive benchmark, CFA achieved about double the performance at the same price. As for wastewater treatment, often activated carbon is used by system integrators. CFA is about 100x more efficient in absorbency (by weight basis) and 5x faster in contact time vs activated carbon. For oil refinery sour water treatment, several companies provide coalescer filters (in addition to activated carbon filters),” claimed the CEO.
Thus far, the company has attracted US$1 million in funding from various angel investors and one investment group. It is on its way to raising another US$400,000 to convert additional clients into paying customers and supply with currently installed capacity. Subsequently, EcoWorth plans to raise US$4 million to go to full-blown sales and self-sufficient growth.
In Stolz’s opinion, climate tech, sometimes known as green tech, has been a buzzphrase among investors over the past decade. Different countries in Southeast Asia have different pressing environmental challenges, and hence there’s a variety of startups that focus on various solutions.
“The climate tech industry has good traction and awareness as EcoWorth has seen a sharp increase in investments into greentech companies. However, because this market is competitive, many smaller startups often lack visibility and face difficulties breaking into new sectors,” he concluded.