Early on in her academic career, as an undergraduate studying environmental policy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, UMass Amherst doctoral candidate Julie Bliss Mullen was interested in water. She landed an internship at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) drinking water unit doing work that focused on both the policy and engineering aspects of water quality. But it was a life-changing trip to Guatemala with Engineers Without Borders that put her on the path to developing a revolutionary “plug-and-play” water purification system that is changing the way water treatment is done. Sparked by witnessing firsthand the negative effects on people and communities that arise from a lack of access to clean drinking water, Mullen was determined to make a difference in people’s lives by finding a way to get clean water to more people. “I really started to understand what it was like to not have access to clean water, or access to water at all, and that was a pivotal point for me where I decided I really wanted to focus on water treatment technologies,” says Mullen.
"I really started to understand what it was like to
not have access to clean water and that was a
pivotal point for me."
— Julie Bliss Mullen, Co-Founder and CEO, Aclarity
That pivotal point was one of many that led to Mullen’s start-up company years later, Aclarity, LLC, and its core patent-pending electrochemical water treatment technology. Based upon Mullen’s graduate research conducted with her advisor, Professor David Reckhow in UMass Amherst’s Water Innovation Sustainable Small Systems (WINSSS) laboratory, Mullen’s novel electrochemical advanced oxidation process (EAOP) purifies water with electricity, a sustainable and efficient approach for water treatment.
“Instead of concentrating contaminants in a filter or brine, we chemically destroy those contaminants so that they don’t end up back into the water cycle,” says Mullen.
Mullen got the idea for her sustainable system when she was in charge of looking at new and innovative technologies that companies would bring to Reckhow’s lab.
“It was my job to work with companies and evaluate their technologies and then send them a report explaining their performance. Through that opportunity I was able to work with some unique and completely different water treatment technologies,” says Mullen.
As Mullen tested her technology, she knew she had something significant to offer the water treatment world. With Reckhow’s help, she explored commercialization opportunities, eventually filing a patent application through the campus’s Technology Transfer Office. She also took a series of entrepreneurship courses offered through the UMass Amherst Isenberg School of Management and its affiliated Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship to learn the business side of taking a technology to market. She enrolled in a customer discovery course in early 2017, which helped her figure out what potential customers care about and what they would want when it came to water purification and quality. The class opened Mullen up to the business and entrepreneurship world, and was a stepping stone for launching her startup.
“It would help me to figure out if this technology I’m developing is really going to solve problems or is it just something that I think is really cool but maybe no one is willing to buy or no one really wants. Taking that class, I was able to identify who potential customers might be and start to understand the broader landscape of what it would take to bring the technology to market. I really understand what that supply chain looks like now and how I can integrate into that supply chain, and how to build a product that people want,” says Mullen.
Mullen also met her business partner, Barrett Mully ’18 MBA, in the Isenberg classes. They took first place in the campus’s 2017 Berthiaume Center Innovation Challenge, receiving $26,000 in seed funding to further their concept. “It was a big validator for us to continue,” Mullen says. Since forming their alliance, they’ve successfully pitched their product to innovation audiences, acquiring over a million dollars of funding to further develop their products and to launch their business.
Aclarity's whole-house purification system
In 2018, Reckhow and UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy brought a prototype of Mullen’s technology with them to India where they met with government officials and local decision makers to demonstrate the technology and to showcase research taking place at UMass.
“Water is a big issue in India and it’s actually something that we’ve started to get into. The chancellor wanted to show the power of the technology and the potential impact that it could have in the Indian market,” says Mullen. “One of the best things about this technology is that it works at small scale, with very little power, like a municipal treatment plant you can fit into a backpack.”
Aclarity currently has pilot projects around the world. Mullen says that for their pilot in Mali, Africa, they are working with a water kiosk company to treat water using Aclarity’s innovative system. The purified water is then sold to members of the community and distributed to stores.
“The initial pilots that we have are really to show that we can treat water anywhere for anybody and we’re really excited to make a difference,” says Mullen. Aclarity’s vision is to be the most impactful water company by delivering sustainable, cost effective, and superior water treatment solutions to the world.
The company is also looking at larger applications in industrial wastewater, which is an issue for industries such as agriculture, power, pharmaceuticals, and food and beverage. “The other advantage of what we’re doing is its breadth,” says Mullen. “We destroy contaminants rather than concentrating them into a brine for disposal, and even broaden the idea of water treatment to chemicals like PFAS which are currently thought of as being around forever. This is a greener approach, and is core to our mission.”
These are large ambitions, and Mullen is realistic about how difficult it will be to balance them with the limited resources of a start-up. “We try to be clear with customers exactly what the current device will do for them today, as opposed to what we can make it do in the future. This requires focus,” says Mullen. “We have to run today’s business, shipping devices to solve real problems for our customers, while back in the lab we’re pushing the boundaries of what we can accomplish. It’s exhilarating and revolutionary, but also very real.”
Check out how the University helped Aclarity get off the ground.