Bernelle Verster wants Merah Mas to revolutionise how we deal with wastewater through new
technology and a non-traditional approach to wastewater management. Image by Bernelle Verster.
Biotech in Business: Wastewater is a resource, not a problem
A complex, interlinked challenge such as wastewater treatment needs innovative solutions that are not going to come from the straight-line thinkers that view wastewater as merely an environmental problem.
That is the view of Bernelle Verster, PhD student and one-woman army behind Merah Mas, an industrial biotechnology company that puts as much emphasis on people as products.
Merah Mas means “red gold” in Indonesian and is a reference to the red sands of the Namib Desert. At the tender age of 12, remembers Verster, she had been excited by solar power and envisioned owning a company in the desert. Later, upon completing her undergraduate and Master’s degrees in biochemistry and chemistry, her focus shifted from the desert sun and sands to its major shortcoming: water.
“The company has sort of found its way into what we call ‘wastewater biorefinement’,” she explains. “We’re looking at what we could use in wastewater to create products, so that wastewater treatment works much more like an ecosystem.”
Cellulosic biorefineries are a modern take on the conventional oil refinery, where waste biomass such as agricultural, forestry or food waste is turned into useful new products such as ethanol, biogas or even plastics.
The wastewater biorefinery idea was conceived and developed as part of Verster’s PhD project under Prof Sue Harrison at the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER, University of Cape Town). The project tries to balance the need for water purity with the needs associated with producing useful products.
Movers and Shack-ers
Another major aspect of the company is what Verster calls ShackLabs. “ShackLabs is the place where we try things out, but we try things that enable this biorefinery concept,” she says.
“The real challenge that I’m trying to address is building cheap hardware and software for bioprocess control and analysis.” According to her, the hardware available for this is designed for tightly-controlled pharmaceutical processes – well out of budget for a small start-up, and not suited to the complexity of heavily-polluted, dilute wastewater.
ShackLabs is taking an open-source, volunteer-driven approach, riding the wave of the recent “maker movement” epitomised by groups like Maker Station, Modern Alchemists, and DIYbio. “I’m very big on open-source because I think that these things need to be cheap enough for small companies and enthusiasts like craft beer brewers to use, and patenting just hampers the process. I’m not a fan of patenting at all,” Verster says.
Merah Mas is breaking the mould of a traditional biotech company in that the collaborative nature of ShackLabs provides a perfect training ground for recent university graduates and individuals without a formal education (but with valuable skills) to work together. Verster feels strongly about tapping into the knowledge and skills that these groups offer and assisting them by providing valuable practical experience.
For now, the company is not, strictly speaking, selling anything. Merah Mas can be viewed as a kind of incubator for wastewater biorefinery concepts that will be productive in future. “Merah Mas has been the articulation of my crazy dreams,” laughs Verster. “We’re trying to see what works, so it’s an odd creature.”
Verster’s PhD research has been funded through a research grant from the Water Research Commission. She hopes to finish her PhD within the next year and will then focus on transforming her research into a viable company.
She says ShackLabs will continue to focus on research and capacity-building, while the wastewater biorefinery concept will move towards production. Her vision is that Merah Mas will function through collaborations with large engineering companies, some of which are already innovating in the wastewater sector.
Eventually, Merah Mas will produce what Verster calls “commodity bio-products” (for instance polymers derived from wastewater) and products for wastewater treatment. Her PhD is also focussed on finding a feasible way to achieve this.
“My dream is to be able to influence the way that, for example, the Athlone Waste Water Treatment Works functions. I would like to have it work as a refinery where you actually produce products that you can sell. I think that is really doable.”
Merah Mas is run by Bernelle Verster, self-proclaimed Water Maverick and PhD student with CeBER at the University of Cape Town. She has previously been involved with TEDxCapeTown and hopes to be running Merah Mas full-time from 2016.