A University of Minnesota spinoff is commercializing "green chemistry" solutions that combat coronaviruses as well as neutralize mercury and other industrial-born pollution
"We solve environmental problems without creating new ones," said Abdennour Abbas, co-founder and chief technology officer of Claros Technologies and a University of Minnesota researcher.
Claros has entered into development contracts with three government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency, for more than $1.5 million. It has raised $1.5 million in equity capital from investors and aims to raise about $10 million more in 2021.
"It's a science-based company with the potential for a great impact on the environment," said Phil Soran, a tech entrepreneur who invested in Claros and is on its board of directors.
"They've proved everything they said they would. From embedding antiviral [functionality into plastics and fabrics], to getting mercury and PFAS out of water and detoxifying it," Soran said. "The challenge is scaling up in size. I think that's achievable. And there are businesses with pollution issues and others very interested."
Claros CEO Michelle Bellanca spent 23 years with 3M Co., the last 10 as a Singapore-based managing director of strategic ventures in Asia. She invested, acquired and managed promising tech firms.
"I left 3M in Singapore because I wanted to do something like this," Bellanca said.
She was teaching an entrepreneurial class at the U and raising her children when she was approached by the U's tech-commercialization office to help Abbas in 2017. Claros moved in 2019 from Abbas' lab to a business incubator in St. Paul.
Using its proprietary tech platform, Claros ''grows and tailors tiny nanoparticles to any functionality, whether plastic or ceramics or textiles," Bellanca said. "The disruption comes from growing the nanoparticles within the product."
The materials repel or capture and detoxify contaminants like mercury, phosphorus and other heavy metals, permitting recovery of valuable nutrients and precious metals. The uses include water treatment, watershed management and air pollution control.
Claros operates in two market segments.
It's already making protective garments, including the "Log3 Mask," which it developed under contract with the Department of Defense and the CDC. They are manufactured by Airtex of northeast Minneapolis.
Abbas and Bellanca said Claros has produced the first mask that utilizes technology that inactivates viruses including coronavirus on contact.
The company also is working on a line of protective clothing for food-processing plants, and has struck an agreement with an unspecified outdoor-apparel firm.
Abbas, a native of Algeria who also studied in France, earned graduate degrees in materials science, engineering, chemistry and biological systems.
He developed the first Claros product, dubbed the "mercury sponge," in his lab in 2017.
Mercury is a toxic element and pollutant released into water and air. The Claros process captures the bad stuff, removes and detoxifies it.
Claros also has developed a solution for polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Known as "forever chemicals," they do not naturally degrade. Exposure to these chemicals is linked to severe health consequences, including cancer. The ''Clarosorb" sorbent captures and detoxify PFAS in water.
"Today, activated carbon is used to capture it and then it is landfilled or incinerated," Abbas said. "That's just problem displacement. We designed a process that works to capture and detoxify it."
Claros, scientists and engineers expect to triple in size to 30 people within a couple of years.
The business will deploy product sales and a royalty-licensing model, working with partner manufacturers and engineering firms such as Barr Engineering, on pollution-remediation projects around the globe.
Those sites boast government and corporate liabilities of billions of dollars worth of property and health damage.
Minnesota is home to dozens of closed dumps leaking PFAS into groundwaters.
"These 'forever chemicals' are everywhere," Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop said recently, in asking the Legislature to tap a $122 million landfill-remediation fund. "New PFAS are being invented, used in industry, incorporated into commercial products, and released into the environment every day.
"The gaps in our understanding of the effects of PFAS on human health and the environment is one of the primary reasons Minnesota needs a coordinated, strategic approach to PFAS."
The state and 3M recently reached an $850 million settlement over groundwater pollution of 150 square miles across southern Washington County, affecting drinking water of 14 communities and 170,000 residents.
"Why can't we use the performance materials, these chemicals you need for these products, but also have the capability at the plant level to clean the water before it leaves the plant," Bellanca said. "We're smarter now. There are solutions to avoid the problem in the first place."
Abbas and Bellanca own a majority of Claros stock. Soran and Jim Leslie, the board chairman who also is a veteran technologist, and three others are investors. The U is a minority shareholder.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at email@example.com.